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    2 casino boats may land in Tarpon

    Competing companies seek dock space near each other on Dodecanese Boulevard, though city rules require they remain 1,500 feet apart.

    By KATHERINE GAZELLA

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2001


    TARPON SPRINGS -- Two competing companies want to dock casino boats at neighboring docks in Tarpon Springs.

    SunCruz Casinos LLC has applied with the city to bring a casino boat to property owned by sponge merchant George Billiris at 590 Dodecanese Blvd. Paradise of Port Richey has applied to dock a casino boat just down the street, at 510 Dodecanese.

    "We figure that there's a need," Billiris said. "People go to the north of us and the south of us, so why not here? The demand is strong enough."

    Billiris, the husband of City Commissioner Beverley Billiris, wants to make it clear that he is not negotiating with Paradise, which previously operated a SunCruz boat out of Tarpon Springs. In 1998, Paradise and city officials clashed when the city said Paradise's operation of a gambling boat out of a Tarpon Springs dock was illegal.

    The company Billiris is negotiating with is SunCruz LLC, which is the new name of the company sold last year by SunCruz founder Gus Boulis to a group of investors led by Adam Kidan.

    Since the sale of the company, Paradise and SunCruz LLC have been embroiled in an increasingly nasty series of disputes. They have filed dueling lawsuits, with both companies claiming they should have sole rights to use the SunCruz name in this area. When the companies were on friendlier terms, Paradise operated SunCruz boats out of several ports on the Gulf of Mexico.

    The situation in Tarpon Springs isn't likely to alleviate tensions between the companies. The city prohibits offshore tour vessels from docking within 1,500 feet of each other. That could be a problem, since the locations requested are much less than 1,500 feet apart.

    Both companies would need approval from the Board of Adjustment, Planning and Zoning Board and City Commission, said Walter Fufidio, the city's director of planning and zoning. Billiris' proposal is scheduled to go before the Board of Adjustment at 7 p.m. Feb 28 at City Hall, 324 E Pine St. in Tarpon Springs.

    Billiris said he is still negotiating the details of a possible deal with SunCruz LLC representatives. If everything goes according to plan, a boat that would hold between 150 and 325 people would use a dock on land Billiris owns to the east of his St. Nicholas tour boat.

    "Nothing is conclusive at this point," he said.

    The casino boat Excalibur docked there until a year ago, when the company that operated the boat, Camelot Casino Cruises, ran into financial problems, Billiris said.

    He said he wants to make sure the casino boat does not alter the cultural nature of the Sponge Docks area.

    "We don't want this to be casinoville," he said. "We also don't want any black eyes or bad reputations."

    Billiris said he was wary of dealing with SunCruz in light of the Feb. 7 gangland-style murder of former owner Boulis in Fort Lauderdale. But he said he has confidence in the people he has met at the company.

    "Right now the name SunCruz is very sensitive," Billiris said. But, he said, "I'm comfortable with who we're dealing with."

    SunCruz could have plenty of parking if passengers park in a little-used city parking lot on Live Oak Street, he said. SunCruz could use a shuttle to take passengers to the boat, he said.

    Before Paradise could dock a boat in Tarpon Springs, the company would have to pay $82,750 in fines that it accumulated because of a dispute with the city in 1998, Fufidio said.

    Paradise angered city officials by sailing without the required city licenses. City officials also felt that Paradise's attorney, state Rep. Larry Crow, R-Palm Harbor, dragged out proceedings by using a state statute that allows state legislators to delay meetings during a session of the Legislature.

    In 1998, Crow asked the court to strike down an ordinance requiring a 1,500-foot distance between offshore tour vessels. The company later stopped sailing out of Tarpon Springs.

    Crow could not be reached for comment Thursday, and Paradise's application offered few details about the company's plan.

    -- Staff writer Katherine Gazella can be reached at (727) 445-4182 or gazella@sptimes.com.

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