A drawing of how the sponge docks would look after reconstruction is complete, including the amphitheatre, new benches and additional foliage.
TARPON SPRINGS – “Visit Greece without leaving Florida,” read the pamphlet for the 2012 Republican National Convention.
Forty-five minutes away (in light traffic) from the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the city of Tarpon Springs hoped to entice the politicians and constituents to the sunny banks of the Anclote River and all that the city had to offer.
Now, officials are looking to spice up the look of the main attraction: the sponge docks.
“We’ve been spending a tremendous amount of money advertising Tarpon Springs,” said City Manager Mark LeCouris. “We’re finally bringing some redevelopment to the sponge docks.”
After more than a year of public meetings, city officials are going ahead with a $1.3 million improvement project for the sponge docks, led by Tarpon Springs-based Hoffman Architects. All improvements are planned for public property along Dodecanese Boulevard and Athens Street.
One of the most prominent changes will be an oval-shaped amphitheatre along the southern bank of the Anclote River, an area that Ed Hoffman, the architect in charge of the project, hopes will serve as a gathering point. The city’s sponge boat will still be docked there, as will the iconic sponge diver statue. Hoffman plans to raise the center section of the amphitheatre, creating a downward-slope into the street rather than a curb, which would make transportation easier for the trucks that drive right up to the waterfront.
Hoffman also plans on putting in an 8-foot-wide boat dock, adding to the concrete wharf that currently exists, as well as benches along the waterway and landscaping including Live Oaks, Sylvester Date Palms and Dune Sunflowers.
“We’re putting the docks back in the sponge docks,” he said. “We’re trying to create a pedestrian area where people want to hang out.”
Other elements of Hoffman’s plan include widening the sidewalks along Athens Street, red brick streets reminiscent of the materials from the original sponge docks, nautical-themed wayfinding markers and a sail-shaped gateway just west of Alt. U.S. 19 on Dodecanese Boulevard, welcoming visitors to the area. A floating dock will be constructed for visiting boaters, including kayakers that the city has been working to bring to the docks.
At a December city commission meeting, Vice Mayor Susan Slattery said she imagined the amphitheatre as a place for field trips.
“I see students coming here to learn about the sponge docks and our heritage and traditions,” she said.
Of the $1.3 million allotted for the project, $888,150 is estimated to be spent on the sponge docks, $85,100 on Athens Street and $157,500 on an 8-foot walkway along the Anclote River. The remaining $175,000 will be divided among the gateway element, the wayfinding markers and transient boat slips and docks.
LeCouris and Mayor David Archie used part of that meeting to correct misconceptions about the project that they said had no basis in reality. Dodecanese Boulevard would not be closed for construction, LeCouris said, and the city would not be taking anyone’s private property, whether aboveground or submerged. And, perhaps most important to the cultural aspect of Tarpon Springs, sponge boats wouldn’t be banned from the docks.
“People have said every change will be the death of the sponge docks,” Archie said in response to complaints that the improvement project would ruin the historical value of the area, citing similar comments about the expansion of Pappas Riverside Restaurant and the Sponge Exchange. “The city is not trying to do anything underhanded to anybody.”
Hoffman also pointed out the improvement project will help Tarpon Springs and the sponge docks grow with the community.
“Some kid is going to propose to his future wife on one of our benches,” he said. “They’re going to be creating their own nostalgia.”
The city will open a 30-day bidding period for construction companies from Feb. 25 to March 26, after which city commissioners will vote on a contract to begin the project. Hoffman said his goal is to complete the majority of the construction over the summer during the tourist off-season.
“I think this is something people will be proud of for years to come,” said City Commissioner Townsend Tarapani.
Blueprints of the proposed improvement plan will be on public display on the first floor of City Hall, 324 E. Pine St., from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. To schedule an appointment with city staff for additional information, call 727-942-5611. The drawings also are available online at www.ctsfl.us.