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    A Times Editorial

    Action plan may help Tarpon move forward

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 12, 2000

    The downtown development action plan that Tarpon Springs city commissioners will vote on tonight is a beginning, not an end.

    It is a first step toward trying to solve that small city's economic development woes, not a solution in itself.

    And the 158-page plan will be translated into reality only if numerous governmental and financial hurdles are cleared, and only if people who live and work in Tarpon Springs support it. As Tarpon Springs Mayor Frank DiDonato told residents at a recent meeting, "This is a road map for all of us to take together if you want."

    We emphasize all that because the downtown plan written by the RMPK Group of Sarasota is forward-looking and challenging, and it would bring substantial change to central Tarpon Springs. And Tarpon Springs is a community that sometimes rejects change. In fact, some voices already can be heard saying that the plan is too much, too soon, too costly.

    That is one of the reasons this city is still so far from realizing its potential. Tarpon Springs is unique, a place like no other in Florida, and its tourism potential is mind-boggling. Yet most of the tourists who visit Tarpon Springs go straight to the Sponge Docks, spend a few hours enjoying Greek food and buying souvenirs, and then leave. They often aren't even aware that there is a beautiful gulf-front park on the west side of town, a historic district and a retail-restaurant area bordering the Pinellas Trail downtown.

    Local merchants long have complained that the city not only didn't do enough to attract tourists, but also failed to keep up downtown and the areas surrounding it. They prevailed upon the current City Commission to reverse the trend toward stagnation. The Downtown Development Action Plan, developed by RMPK after a series of visioning sessions in the community, is the result.

    The plan analyzes the downtown area's shortcomings, among them sign clutter, lack of pedestrian amenities, no sense of arrival downtown, deteriorating streets and sidewalks, speeding through traffic, lack of regional and national marketing, land uses that don't meet market demands, and properties in decline that show no promise of redevelopment.

    The downtown plan has page after page of ways to address those shortcomings, from landscaping city streets to building parking garages. From repairing streets and sidewalks to allowing bed and breakfast inns near Spring Bayou. From building a downtown park to creating gateways that announce to visitors that they have arrived in the historic downtown.

    The plan also addresses in an overarching way some of the town's biggest failings when it comes to serving tourists. For example, it notes that Pinellas Avenue north of Tarpon Avenue is in poor condition and discouraging to pedestrians, and it proposes improvements to that street, as well as a trolley system to shuttle visitors between the Sponge Docks and downtown.

    It notes that Tarpon Springs needs more "nodes of activity" to keep tourists in the city longer and proposes an ecotourism center on the Anclote River where visitors could rent canoes or kayaks or learn about the local environment.

    And because the city has no hotel to house tourists who want to stay longer, the plan proposes a location near the ecotourism center for a riverfront hotel.

    To finance the public improvements called for in the plan, the city would try to get state or federal grants and tourism development dollars. But a primary source of money, if Pinellas County officials approved, would be tax dollars achieved through the creation of a community redevelopment district downtown. As property values in the district rose, the extra tax revenue generated would be applied to making improvements in the district.

    The RMPK plan will take years to fully implement and probably will need to be modified as economic conditions and city needs change. But now -- while the economy is good, local merchants are encouraged, and residents and staff are excited about the ideas -- is the time to get started.

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