Ministers frown on gambling boat plan
By KATHERINE GAZELLA, Times Staff Writer
TARPON SPRINGS -- A group of Tarpon Springs religious leaders has announced that it disapproves of casino boats and has asked city officials not to allow boats that offer gambling.
The Tarpon Springs Ministerial Association made the decision after commissioners gave initial approval last month to a casino boat proposal from Clearwater hotelier Tony Markopoulos. The boat would accommodate 800 people and would be docked behind the Louis Pappas Riverside Restaurant.
"Our opposition is not just moral, it's financial," the Rev. Chuck Johnson, pastor of the First Assembly of God and president of the group, told commissioners Wednesday. "We don't think it's going to bring any encouragement to the business community."
Meanwhile, commissioners said they have heard that the Pappases may not own the submerged land behind the restaurant, as was previously believed. Also, down the river, a shuttle boat has begun carrying passengers from businessman George Billiris' dock to a boat in the Gulf of Mexico operated by Stardancer Casino Cruises, Billiris said.
A letter from the ministers' organization, which includes at least a dozen members of the clergy, said its members voted unanimously to oppose any measures that would allow gambling in the city.
"Gambling becomes unloving, unjust and destructive and elevates personal pleasure, social expedience and economic gain before God and neighbor," the Rev. Carl vom Eigen of the Church on the Bayou wrote in a separate letter to city officials.
Mayor Frank DiDonato and City Attorney John Hubbard told the ministers that regardless of how commissioners feel about gambling, the city cannot ban all casino boats.
"We could not preclude it if we chose to," Hubbard said. "They are lawful businesses. There are limitations on us."
He pointed out that the city has done what it can by restricting how many large boats are allowed along the Sponge Docks. A city ordinance prohibits offshore tour vessels from docking within 1,500 feet of each other, which effectively permits only two such vessels along the docks.
Commissioners still have to vote on a development agreement and site plans for the vessel, a hotel and a convention center proposed by Markopoulos.
Commissioners said Wednesday night that they have heard from the applicants that the submerged land behind the Pappas restaurant may not be owned by the Pappas family. Applications to the city had indicated that the property was owned by the Pappases, which would pave the way for Markopoulos, who is buying the landmark restaurant, to put a vessel in the Anclote River.
Hubbard said Thursday that he was researching the issue. He said it may turn out that the Pappases own the property. If they don't own the land, he said, "then we have a very different world than we thought."
John Tarapani, who is acting as an agent for Markopoulos, would only say, "It's up in the air."
Markopoulos would not comment Friday.
Hubbard said it would be difficult, if not impossible, for Markopoulos to get a new submerged land lease from the state for a boat that offers gambling if the Pappas family does not already own the land.
"I doubt that they can get that," Hubbard said.
- Staff writer Katherine Gazella can be reached at (727) 445-4182 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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