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    Tarpon casino boat shuttle in the works

    The service would bring people from Tarpon Spring's Sponge Docks to a gambling boat in the gulf.

    By KATHERINE GAZELLA
    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published November 30, 2001


    TARPON SPRINGS -- A company that brings passengers on shuttle boats to an offshore casino boat plans to come to Tarpon Springs by the end of the year, a company executive said Thursday.

    Stardancer Casino Cruises wants to bring a 120-passenger shuttle to the Sponge Docks in the next month, said Sam Gray Jr., the company's vice president of marketing. The shuttle will bring people to the El Dorado casino boat 9 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico.

    Shuttles in Port Richey already carry passengers to the El Dorado and will continue to do so after the company comes to Tarpon Springs. Gray said Stardancer wants to tap into the North Pinellas and South Pasco markets by opening at the Sponge Docks.

    "Tarpon has seen the bad side of boats: transient boats, boats that come and go," he said. "We'll change Tarpon's track record."

    Indeed, the city has had trouble with casino boats in the past. The Victori casino boat -- which operated out of a dock owned by sponge merchant George Billiris -- ran into mechanical problems, resistance from the city and bad publicity after the company was unable to pay a big-money winner.

    Previous casino boat companies locked horns with the city because of unpaid fines and the companies' objections to an ordinance that requires at least 1,500 feet of separation between any two locations where offshore tour vessels dock.

    City Attorney John Hubbard said that, according to the information he has seen, the Stardancer shuttle boat would not be subject to that distance-separation ordinance because it would not carry enough people to qualify as an offshore tour vessel. The company is in the process of applying for an occupational license, Gray said.

    In addition to the Port Richey operation, Stardancer, which is based in Little River, S.C., also operates out of Miami Beach, Fernandina Beach, Madeira Beach and Myrtle Beach, S.C.

    Gray said he has not decided if the shuttle boat in Tarpon Springs will be docked at property owned by Billiris next to Santorini restaurant or property behind the aquarium, owned by the Georgiou family.

    The shuttle probably will leave Tarpon Springs at 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. daily, he said. Shuttles run out of Port Richey at 10 a.m., noon, 4 p.m. and 7 p.m.

    The company also has purchased a parking lot along the roundabout at the end of Dodecanese Boulevard and is working with the city to set up restrooms there, Gray said. He said Stardancer is in the process of cleaning up the grass lot, which is covered with debris. He said it will have 170 to 200 parking spots.

    Gray said that by developing the parking lot, he will help the local economy.

    "We are going to be adding to the resources of the city," he said.

    Peter Nehr, who owns the American Spirit flag shop along with his wife, Anita, said he supports Stardancer's plan. In the past, the Nehrs have objected to casino boat proposals because they didn't think the boats would help other businesses at the docks.

    This time, though, Nehr said he is pleased that the company is developing a parking lot and that restrooms may be built on the property, which is near his store.

    He doesn't even mind that the shuttle boat, which could be the old Miss Milwaukee charter boat, might be docked behind his business.

    "He's doing the right thing, as long as he's providing something for the docks," he said.

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

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