Tampa Bay Times, St. Petersburg, Fla.
7:04 AM EST, November 11, 2012
Talk of changes at the Sponge Docks often comes back to how to strike this elusive balance:
Old, but not too old. New, but not too new.
As a popular local refrain goes, this isn't Disney World.
Merchants have pushed back against recent concepts for $1 million in city-funded improvements at the Sponge Docks, illustrating the tense battle to preserve the area's heritage and history while giving it a much-needed sprucing up.
"I don't want to reinvent the wheel," said Sponge Exchange owner Louis Pappas, "but I just want to clean up the wheel."
Sponge Docks business owners feel that what they have now works. Tourism officials often cite an estimate of nearly 1 million visitors to the docks every year.
But could it work better? How? And would too much newness lead to a bust?
Many Tarpon Springs families are fiercely protective of the commercial sponging and fishing industry there, even as it has waned in recent years.
"We became a tourist attraction not by design -- by accident," said longtime Sponge Docks businessman George Billiris.
The sponging industry and Greek community set the scene. Tourism naturally followed.
"So the history tells you what it is," he said. "All you have to do is open up your eyes and look at it."
The draw at the docks isn't the Greek food sold in restaurants lining the Anclote River, said sponge diver Taso Karistinos, who captains the Anastasi. The draw isn't the T-shirts and knickknacks sold in the curio shops.
It's the allure of the working sponge boats that draws tourists, he said. Lose that and lose the tourist base.
"They come here to see the historic boats," he said. "They want to see the action. They want to hear the story about it ... If you take the sponges out of here, the show is over."
Initially, the proposed improvements project played up the feel of the Sponge Docks' Night in the Islands events, where Dodecanese Boulevard closes off for dancing and music in the street.
Concepts suggested included building an observation tower to pull more tourists toward the west end of the Sponge Docks, making some of the street pedestrian-only around a plaza and amphitheater, and creating a riverwalk along the water's edge.
The idea of blocking off the street especially riled people, who worried it would kill the flow of traffic to businesses and boats.
And in many minds loomed the fear that elaborate changes would dress up the docks too much -- like a theme park.
"We're not trying to be Epcot Greece on the Sponge Docks," said Mary Klimis Coburn, an attorney who represents several Sponge Docks business and property owners. Her family also has a business interest in a shop, Tarpon Sponge Co. "There are some great ideas, but they just need to be nuanced to where they keep it authentic."
What seemed to resonate best with locals were simple beautification efforts: installing street lights, paving the street with bricks, adding some landscaping elements.
Ed Hoffman, the architect hired by the city to design the $1 million project, is re-examining the plan. The city expects to hold another workshop within the next couple of months to try to move forward with some of the improvements.
But nothing that people overwhelmingly reject will go through, he promised.
"We either all fly together," he said, "or we sink together."
Stephanie Wang can be reached at (727) 445-4155 or email@example.com. ___
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