Casino boat could dock in Tarpon
By KATHERINE GAZELLA, Times Staff Writer
TARPON SPRINGS -- A month ago, hotelier Tony Markopoulos wouldn't say what kind of large boat he wants to bring to the Sponge Docks when he buys the Louis Pappas Riverside Restaurant.
This week, it became clear he wants to bring in a cruise vessel that would offer gambling, entertainment and a restaurant. It could be one of the largest boats of its kind on the gulf coast of Florida.
"Gambling would be part of it," said Michael Crawford, a principal planner with the Pinellas Planning Council who is the city's point man for the Pappas-Markopoulos deal.
Crawford said he has spoken to Markopoulos and John Tarapani, a Tarpon Springs businessman who is working with Markopoulos on the deal. They told him the Chicago-based vessel Markopoulos is looking at can hold 1,200 people but he would allow only about 800 passengers.
Typically, boats in this area are much smaller and hold fewer passengers, said Larry Crow, a state representative who, as a private attorney, represents the casino boat company Paradise of Port Richey. Paradise's boats hold about 350 passengers, he said.
Tarapani did not return a telephone call this week. Markopoulos would not discuss the plans for a casino boat.
"I don't think I will release any information at this time," Markopoulos said.
Crawford said passengers eventually would use the parking garage that is part of Markopoulos' development plan. Until that is completed, Markopoulos wants to use a city-owned parking lot on Live Oak Street that is almost always vacant.
Information about the boat is part of a staff report Crawford is preparing for city officials. At 7 p.m. Monday, the Planning and Zoning Board is scheduled to take up two conditional use requests related to the Pappas-Markopoulos deal. The City Commission is scheduled to vote on the requests at a 6:30 p.m. meeting Tuesday. Both meetings are at City Hall, 324 E Pine St.
One proposal asks permission for a hotel to be built adjacent to Pappas Restaurant and a convention center to be built across Dodecanese Boulevard. A separate request is for an offshore tour vessel that would be docked in the Anclote River behind the restaurant, Crawford said.
Mayor Frank DiDonato said Wednesday that he will make a decision about the proposals after reading the staff report and other information in his agenda packet, and hearing the discussion at the Tuesday meeting.
"Apparently, it is a great deal different than what we have seen around here," he said of the vessel, noting that he has heard it will have a sit-down restaurant and an entire floor dedicated to entertainment.
Commissioner Karen Brayboy said she has never been a supporter of casino boats but understands this one "will have a little bit of a different flavor" with offerings in addition to gambling.
She also pointed out that the city would gain something from Markopoulos' entire proposal, with the addition of a hotel, convention center and parking garage.
"If I have to have a boat down there," she said, "at least this will bring benefit."
Commissioner Jim Archer said he won't make a decision about the boat until seeing a final plan, but he said the variety of activities on the vessel make him more inclined to support it than if it were strictly a casino boat.
"I think what's going to be different here, according to Mr. Markopoulos, is that there's going to be entertainment and good food, not just gambling," he said.
Commissioner Beverley Billiris would not comment about the proposal because she has a conflict of interest. Her husband, sponge merchant George Billiris, rented his dock space to the Victori casino boat this year and has negotiated to bring in other boats since the Victori left.
Commissioner Cindy Sanner could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Crow said he is watching the city's decision on this issue. If commissioners vote to allow the vessel without any strings attached, he said Paradise will seek to bring a boat to the Sponge Docks. The precedent of allowing casino boats would be set, he said.
He said it would be smart for commissioners to only allow the boat if it is conditioned upon the development of the hotel, convention center and parking garage. If that happens, Crow said, it isn't clear if Paradise would try to bring in a boat.
"It's a wait-and-see situation for us," he said.
City Attorney John Hubbard has said it appears that a boat on the Pappas property would be more than 1,500 feet from other offshore tour boats, so it wouldn't be subject to a city ordinance that prohibits offshore tour vessels from docking within 1,500 feet of each other.
Crow has argued against the 1,500-foot rule and said it was a way to keep his clients out of the city. He said he doesn't know exactly where Paradise would go if the company returned to Tarpon Springs, but the company probably would try to operate close to the boat behind Pappas Restaurant. Paradise left Tarpon Springs in 1999 after numerous conflicts with the city.
- Staff writer Katherine Gazella can be reached at (727) 445-4182 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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