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Not all are festive about weekend events

Several Sponge Docks businesses say festivals cut off access to stores with street closures and vendors compete for revenues.

By CANDACE RONDEAUX
Published June 22, 2003

TARPON SPRINGS - Batten down the hatches. There's a storm brewing at the Sponge Docks, and it doesn't look as if it's going to let up any time soon.

Clouds gathered over the city's tourist district recently after dozens of Sponge Docks merchants began circulating a petition demanding changes in the way street festivals are run. More than 30 shop and restaurant owners say they're fed up with weekend-long events, such as arts and crafts shows, that close down Dodecanese Boulevard, cut off store access and create parking nightmares in the area.

"They can close the streets temporarily, but not for two days or three days," said Johnny Georgiou, a Sponge Docks shop owner. "It's a total chaotic situation when they start setting up those tents for the festivals."

This week, Sponge Docks merchants will explore whether festivals are a boon or bane for business. City Commissioner Peter Nehr has invited business owners to discuss the issue at a meeting Wednesday night. The commissioner, who also owns three shops in the area, said he hopes the discussion will help merchants broker a compromise on how festivals are run.

"No one is trying to close the festivals," Nehr said. "We just want to make sure that the festivals that we have are of the highest quality."

Many of roughly 35 business owners who signed the petition criticizing the festivals say vendors are selling items that compete with their own products. They also complain that the quality of the events has declined in recent years.

"Before we had high quality items: paintings that cost $50 or $100," Nehr said. "Now we're selling cheap jewelry, temporary tattoos and items that cost 10 or 20 bucks at the festivals."

Of course, not everyone agrees that festivals need to be changed. Members of the Sponge Docks Merchants Association, the group that runs many of the special events along Dodecanese, say the petition and complaints are just sour grapes on the part of a handful of merchants. They argue that festivals are a boon, especially during the sluggish summer months when tourist visits to the area decrease.

"Other towns are doing things to bring people to their town," association treasurer Mercury Giallourakis said. "Why should we be different? The economy is tough, and we make money from (the festivals). Why not bring people to Tarpon Springs?"

Mama's Greek Cuisine co-owner Michael Koursiotis agrees. He said complaints about the festivals are overblown and said Mama's continues to draw customers despite competition from festival food vendors who set up shop along the main drag.

"You have two types of customers," Koursiotis said. "Some customers who want to eat outside. Some want to eat inside where it's air conditioned. I can look at my numbers on any given festival day, and I'm getting three times the numbers that I usually do."

Mayor Frank DiDonato said the overall benefits of the events to the city's tourist economy far outweigh the disadvantages. But he acknowledged receiving complaints about street closure during the festivals from several Sponge Docks merchants.

"I think it does definitely bring people into the town and gives exposure to Tarpon Springs," DiDonato said. "I think everybody down there (at the Sponge Docks) should be talking and trying to come up with solutions rather than dividing into two camps."

- Candace Rondeaux can be reached at 727 445-4182 or rondeaux@sptimes.com

[Last modified June 22, 2003, 01:33:03]


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