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Officials say the plan's goal is to create a community where tourists want to linger and entrepreneurs want to invest.
By RICHARD DANIELSON
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 12, 2000
TARPON SPRINGS -- To city officials, Tarpon Springs has wonderful things to visit but has done little over the years to package them attractively for tourists.
Tonight at 6:30 p.m., the City Commission is scheduled to vote on a plan meant to change that.
Commissioners will consider approving a 158-page downtown redevelopment plan that tries to tie the Sponge Docks, downtown's antique stores, the Pinellas Trail and the city's scenic bayous into a place with an identity of its own. Written by urban planning consultants at the RMPK Group in Sarasota, the plan outlines a 10- to 20-year, $15-million program to improve streets, sidewalks, landscaping and parking.
The goal, say city officials, is to create a Tarpon Springs where tourists want to linger and entrepreneurs want to invest.
"I think all of us realize that we need to be doing something," Mayor Frank DiDonato said Monday. "We're known for our tourism, and we certainly need to be moving in that direction."
But there are a few skeptics, such as John K. Tarapani, a Realtor and Tarpon Avenue antiques merchant.
"I think parts of it are unrealistic (and) I think parts of it are non-implementable," Tarapani said. "A plan should have some concreteness to it, and everything coming out of the city is, "It's a living document: it can do this; it can do that.' "
Tarapani disagreed with the idea of building a new parking garage on Court Street, just east of Pinellas Avenue.
"I don't think it's realistic to tear down a bank and a law office and build a parking garage and additional retail," he said.
Tarapani also said that introducing canoe or kayak rentals to Spring Bayou, as proposed, would change Craig Park from a place for passive recreation to one with more-intense activities.
"Is the next thing going to be a hot dog stand?" he said.
DiDonato said those criticisms rely on assumptions that might not be correct. He said the Court Street garage might be built around or even over the buildings that are on the block now.
As for Craig Park, DiDonato said residents have talked about making better use of the city's ecological resources, and Spring Bayou has been mentioned in those discussions. He also noted that the plan also includes canoe and kayak rentals to the north on the Anclote River.
"It doesn't mean that we'll have both; we might only have one," he said. But even what's proposed, he added, doesn't mean that Craig Park would become "highly active."
"There are all kinds of ways to look at it," DiDonato said. "To me, it has to be approached one phase at a time, one step at a time."
Two recommended projects are already under way, city planning and zoning director Walter Fufidio said. One is a new parking lot at Orange Street and Safford Avenue. The other consists of the addition of new curbs that will stick out a bit into Tarpon Avenue at Safford. The curbs are meant to cause drivers to slow down, thus making the street safer for pedestrians.
"Those have been permitted and designed, and now we're getting ready to get the job under way next summer," Fufidio said.
If commissioners approve the plan tonight, city officials will begin the process of creating a Community Redevelopment Agency -- a new organization within City Hall that would be responsible for carrying out the plan.
Fufidio said RMPK's consultants have suggested that the city try to have the agency in place by June 30, 2001.
The first step would be to meet with Pinellas County officials. The County Commission must give its approval before the city creates the redevelopment agency.
Next, state law would require that the city make a legal finding that the proposed redevelopment includes slums or blighted conditions. That area is outlined in the plan, but its boundaries could change if county officials raise objections.
"I think that will mostly be a matter of negotiation with the Board of County Commissioners," Fufidio said. "If the Board of County Commissioners says, "Great, go,' I think that will be the boundary."
Once the district was established, the city would raise money for redevelopment projects through a process called tax increment financing. Here's how it would work: Officials first would add up the assessed value of all the property inside the district.
In the future, the tax revenues generated by that base value would continue to go to the local governments that have collected them. But as the assessed value of property in the district grew, the additional property tax revenue generated by the increased value would be directed into a redevelopment fund.
That money could be used to pay for some projects. For example, planners and city officials would anticipate using money from the redevelopment fund to pay for a parking garage that is part of a hotel proposed for the Anclote River. Tax increment financing also could be used to match grants from other agencies for projects or could be used to make debt payments for projects on which the city had to borrow money.
Tarapani, however, notes that he has owned the site of the proposed riverside hotel for years and has yet to get a hotel developer interested in the project. So far, the developers he's spoken with look for sites at interstate interchanges or on highways such as U.S. 19.
"They look at the volume of traffic going by the site," he said. "Don't get me wrong: I'd love to see a hotel go there."
So would the city, Tarpon Springs officials say. Then they add that maybe the key would be to entice hotel developers with a citywide plan.
"The more that we can package what we have to make ourselves a destination, the more willing a hotel developer's going to be to move into the city and not be so worried about being on a major interchange," City Manager Ellen Posivach said.
- Staff writer Richard Danielson can be reached at (727) 445-4194 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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