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Tarpon gets look at 1 view of future

Residents and officials study a consulting group's ideas to make Tarpon Springs more tourist friendly.

By MATTIAS KAREN

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 29, 2000


TARPON SPRINGS -- Residents and city officials got a glimpse Thursday night of what downtown Tarpon Springs might look like one day, and what they saw promises to be prettier and more tourist-friendly.

The RMPK Group of Sarasota and city officials held a workshop at the Heritage Center to unveil the consulting group's proposal for a 10-year overhaul of the downtown area. It includes a large hotel and conference center close to the Sponge Docks, new shopping centers, landscaped gateways to the three main entrances to downtown and a city trolley.

The conceptual plan is the result of nearly three months of planning by RMPK and several community workshops. RMPK principal Kurt Easton said the plan is meant to highlight and compliment Tarpon Springs' historic architecture and better connect the Sponge Docks to the rest of downtown.

"Everything that's going to be done in this community . . . is built on those (aspects)," Easton said. "This is about improving the visual and functional quality of your community."

The plan also calls for narrowing many of the downtown streets, including Pinellas Avenue, broadening sidewalks and planting more trees along the streets. That would slow down traffic or divert it elsewhere, Easton said, making it safer and more pleasant for pedestrians to stroll among the downtown shops. Part of Hibiscus Avenue, stretching from Athens Avenue to Orange Street, would be repaved for pedestrian use only, with park benches and trees along the sides.

No developers have been identified to do the work, but the consultants suggested that Tarpon Springs officials foster redevelopment through a series of new projects.

A hotel and conference center could be built on the Anclote River, east of Pinellas Avenue. With the hotel, tourists would be more willing to spend the night in Tarpon Springs, Easton said. RMPK also proposed a bed-and-breakfast across the street from Spring Bayou, and a small pier on the bayou itself.

One of the main tourism problems now is that visitors usually don't stay for more than a couple of hours, and often only visit the Sponge Docks. To lure people for longer stays, there must be more for them to do and see, Easton said.

"Over the long run, people will stay more than one night, and have more things to do and spend more money in your community," he said.

Consequently, the proposal includes several new shopping areas, and an "eco-tourism" center offering several outdoor activities.

A three-story, multi-use complex called "The Avenue" could be constructed along Pinellas Avenue, stretching from Park Street to south of Read Street. More shopping could be located along "Hibiscus Walk," which would feature a "Hibiscus Court" with several shops and boutiques.

Consultants also recommended building a 600-space parking garage on the corner of Safford Avenue and Lemon Street.

And to make it easier to get around without a car, consultants also proposed a trolley on a circular route around downtown.

"That just gives people an opportunity to step on the bus and say, "Well, where do we go now?' " Easton said.

The proposal received mainly positive reaction from the 35 or so residents and city officials who had gathered for the workshop.

"An excellent concept," general contractor John Marzulli said. "There's nothing not to like about this project."

Debbie DiDonato, Mayor Frank DiDonato's wife, echoed that thought.

"I love this project," she said.

But, Marzulli said, with the makeup of the City Commission changing next year, and several more times before the project would be completed, "How do you keep the dream alive?"

City Commissioner Jim Archer said he was confident that if the community supported the project, so would any commission.

"If we plant the vision," Archer said, "they're going to want it."

Mayor DiDonato also said the project doesn't hinge on the support of the commission.

"There isn't a politician now or in the future that's going to follow through, because they can only serve six years," DiDonato said. "It takes a community to run this vehicle, not a commission."

The key to making the plan a reality seems to be convincing many business owners and other local groups that the plan is in their best interest.

For instance, the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral recently bought and plans to develop a community center on part of the land where "The Avenue" would be built. So before "The Avenue" can happen, the city either has to incorporate the church's plans into its own or help the church find another location for its community center.

"The city needs to talk to them," Easton said.

The city also would have to change some of its architectural guidelines and zoning revisions. Some business owners said the city will also have to become more willing to meet businesses' needs to attract them here. As it is, many companies prefer to open businesses in Palm Harbor or Clearwater because Tarpon Springs is hard to deal with, they said.

"You know how tough it is to get something done in this city?" said Ted Frantzis, who owns property on Pinellas Avenue. "It's almost impossible."

Mayor DiDonato, however, said he thought it was possible for everyone to work toward a common goal.

"I see a togetherness now that I've never seen before (in the community)," he said.

- Mattias Karen can be reached at (727) 445-4243 or at northpin@sptimes.com.

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