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Casino family tries new tactic

The Kolokithases, once archenemies of the city of Port Richey, decide ''making friends'' might be better for business.

By MATTHEW WAITE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 1, 2002


PORT RICHEY -- In May, Port Richey's city attorney floated the idea of banning gambling boats completely from Port Richey. Mollie Kolokithas, who owns the city's gambling boat company, said "bring it on."

For seven years, the Kolokithas family battled with the city over all manner of things, from city codes to city politics. But in the past two months, their tactics have changed.

In October, the family handed over $10,000 in checks during a City Council meeting to help the city dredge the Pithlachascotee River. Last month, in similar fashion, the family donated $4,000 to Pride in Port Richey's children's holiday party.

Mollie Kolokithas, often a feisty voice at council meetings, volunteered to be on city boards and committees for the first time last month. The family is putting together a town newsletter and has given the city its own as-yet-created Web site.

And last week, Kolokithas stood next to City Manager Vince Lupo at a news conference to announce a proposed nonprofit company, made up of city leaders and the Kolokithas family, to open a gambling parlor offering whatever expanded gambling the state may allow. After the Kolokithas family gets their cut for running the parlor, the rest goes to the city.

Why the turnaround?

"We're making friends," Mollie Kolokithas said.

More than that, Kolokithas said the family wants "immortality" in Port Richey. Alex and Mollie Kolokithas, who started the company, and their son Bill Kolokithas, who runs it now, want future generations to take over the family business.

And that, they reason, requires some political stability in a town that has rarely seen political peace.

'So bring it on'

Since the Kolokithas family came to Port Richey in 1995, they've been one of the most disruptive names about town.

Their company -- through the years, it has been named Pair-A-Dice, Paradise, SunCruz and now Port Richey Casinos -- has been at odds with the city since former Mayor James Carter and former City Manager Max Pope tried to extract a "contribution" from the company, like a port tax without the city passing a port tax.

Over the years, the gambling boat was a political football, making easy campaign fodder and getting one former council member in trouble when he worked for the company and voted on an ordinance regarding the company. Several times, the two sides have threatened legal action against the other and twice lawsuits were filed. Both cases were dismissed.

Last year, the city and the gambling boat company were careening toward civil court, until the two went to mediation early this year and settled a city code dispute over the company's parking lot and building.

This year, until two months ago, Mollie Kolokithas was at City Council meetings to rail against a waterfront redevelopment plan and fight a city effort to put a parking garage near her gambling boat property.

The city attorney, Paul Marino, talked openly of an ordinance to ban gambling boats completely.

"We should have headed this off before it happened to this beautiful city," Marino said in May.

Kolokithas angrily responded "We will never do business with Port Richey as long as he's (Marino) attorney. He wants us out. So bring it on."

The ordinance talk went nowhere.

Something's going on

Now, the tone is very, very different.

The former mayor that tried to tax the company now is an employee. Mollie Kolokithas said they hired James Carter to help them navigate and understand the city rules. And, as Kolokithas said, to make friends.

The dredging effort, the beneficiary of $10,000 in Kolokithas money, is headed up by council member Dale Massad. The children's Christmas party, flush with $4,000 in Kolokithas cash, is put on by Pride in Port Richey, which Vice Mayor Pat Guttman has been part of for years.

Lupo was effusive when Mollie Kolokithas gave him a mock-up of a newsletter because he'd been trying to revive the newsletter for years himself. Kolokithas said they would include city news, calendar information and opinions, with Carter as editor of editorials. She said they were hoping for a first issue in December.

Lupo also has been trying to put the city online but lacked a site; the Kolokithases provided one.

In July, Mollie Kolokithas told City Council members that their view of the future of Port Richey's waterfront wouldn't work. The key to that redevelopment is the city's idea to build a parking garage on waterfront land, which Kolokithas said at the time was a bad idea.

"What does this mean to the people who are there?" she asked then. "How does this make money in our pockets?"

Now, she said the family needs the garage if any expansion is to happen on the waterfront. If their gambling parlor idea takes off, Kolokithas said they'd have to help Port Richey build it.

"This (joint venture) idea changes the whole complexity," Kolokithas said.

That's music to Lupo's ears. He wants that parking garage, he said, because it's nontax money coming in to the city.

So far, City Council members have said they'll listen to the Kolokithas family's plans for the joint venture, but are withholding judgment.

"If it's for the good of the city, it's something we should look into," Phyllis Grae said. "I'll listen to anything."

"As an elected official, I will listen to the options and alternatives," Mayor Eloise Taylor said. "I will not out of hand dismiss this as a proposal."

Grae said the Kolokithas family was giving back to Port Richey.

"They've probably made a lot of money in this city," she said.

Kolokithas said the fights with the city are in the past, and were the result of either politics or the family not knowing the city's rules.

"I do get in squabbles," she said. "I don't mind it at all. It's politics.

"If we're all quiet in Port Richey, that means something is going on."

Kolokithas said the family wants stability. The nonprofit gambling venture with the city is part of it. It's a hedge against the Legislature permitting more gambling around the state, allowing the family to keep gamblers in Port Richey. Plus, the venture is an alliance with the city they want to "anchor in," Kolokithas said.

"We will never lose money if Port Richey prospers with us," she said.

Still, Kolokithas hints that there may be clashes to come. If the gambling venture with the city falls through, the family isn't going to be so supportive of a parking garage.

Taylor, too, said she isn't happy with city rules regarding gambling boat regulations, something she's advocated several times. And, she said, she isn't so sure she wants Port Richey known as a gambling town.

Kolokithas knows Port Richey's politics are volatile; she expects it.

"God bless us, we (in Port Richey) are controversial," she said. "But we wade through it."

Hopefully, she said, the new strategy of making friends will work.

"Maybe they'll put a plaque up one day," Kolokithas said, chuckling.

-- Matthew Waite covers Port Richey city government. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6247, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6247. His e-mail address is waite@sptimes.com .

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