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Tarpon is ready to soak up cartoon

With previous hesitation aside, the city will welcome the absorbent cartoon today for this weekend's sponge festival.

By CANDACE RONDEAUX
Published May 1, 2004

TARPON SPRINGS - He may be square, but he knows how to party.

Nearly a year after city officials poked holes in plans to invite cartoon superstar SpongeBob SquarePants to Tarpon Springs, hundreds are expected to get their sponge on with the synthetic celebrity this weekend.

"Whether it's Mickey Mouse or SpongeBob, we're going to welcome him," said Mayor Beverley Billiris.

The squeezable sensation will receive top billing in a parade scheduled to start today at 10 a.m. at Dodecanese Boulevard and N Pinellas Avenue. The parade is part of an array of absorbing amusements planned for this weekend's Tarpon Springs Sponge Festival, which also includes carnival rides and a soapbox derby race. Sponsored by the Greater Tarpon Springs Chamber of Commerce, WFLA-AM 970 and others, the two-day event coincides with the weekendlong Taste of Tarpon Springs, a celebration of the city's authentic Greek culture and cuisine at the Sponge Docks.

"Hopefully it will be a big success," said chamber president Richard O'Neil. "We've been trying to do this for a long time."

WFLA-AM radio host Jack Harris first approached the city about forging a marketing link between SpongeBob SquarePants and Tarpon Springs about two years ago. But the proposal sank quickly after several local politicians and sponge industry leaders raised objections, saying it made a mockery of the city's trademark industry.

"I originally had issues with this," Billiris said. "No matter what cartoon character he was, no city should be aligned with a cartoon."

The comical yellow star of Nickelodeon cable channel's popular SpongeBob SquarePants has developed a cultlike following since the show first aired in 1999. His adventures as a fry cook at the Krusty Krab in Bikini Bottom, an imaginary city in the Pacific Ocean, attract millions in ad revenues and viewers.

But the porous cartoon prodigy raised eyebrows at City Hall last year after rumors bubbled up about his less-than-perfect pedigree. Like all sponges, SpongeBob SquarePants appears on the surface to be a member of the group of marine animals known collectively as porifera. However, the cartoon character's square shape has led some in Tarpon Springs to suspect he is, in fact, synthetic.

"I've had a couple calls from residents that are not happy," Billiris said. "They're not happy that we're spotlighting an artificial sponge when there are people who have died making their living in the sponge industry."

Harris, however, contends SpongeBob SquarePants is the real McCoy.

"He has parents, so therefore he's not synthetic," Harris said.

Friend or faux, SpongeBob SquarePants is expected to give the city's tourism industry a boost this weekend. The event's rare blend of Sponge Docks kitsch and downtown class could draw big crowds to Tarpon Springs, O'Neil said.

Meanwhile, Billiris said she plans to give SpongeBob SquarePants a warm welcome at today's event despite her initial reservations. But she has declined a request to present the gap-toothed dignitary with a key to the city, opting instead to present him with a real sea sponge.

"What could be better than presenting a synthetic sponge with a real one?" she said.

- Candace Rondeaux can be reached at 727 771-4307 or at rondeaux@sptimes.com

[Last modified May 1, 2004, 01:10:35]


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