TARPON SPRINGS — Visitors come for the sea-worn vessels lining the Anclote River, their hulls rusted from decades of harvesting sponges, the scent of petrol drifting from their engines before venturing out again.
They appreciate the aroma of coffee, roasted lamb and seafood from a dozen Greek restaurants and bakeries crammed together along Dodecanese Boulevard.
What tourists aren’t especially impressed with is the stark stretch of concrete along the river that makes up the famed Sponge Docks, which offers scant shade and few comfortable places to sit, city leaders have said.
They hope a $1.3 million project going out for bid in the next month will brighten up this beloved but faded main attraction and perhaps bring a boost in tourism merchants say is sorely needed.
Plans envision the drab concrete sidewalk along the seawall transformed into a brick path with an 8-foot dock extending onto the river.
Palms and wood trellises would shade benches. People could watch Greek dancing from a small amphitheater at the center of the docks.
The trouble is after two years of public discussion and revisions, many people here aren’t sure they want to see their authentic sponge diving village changed or spruced up, at least not this much.
“We have one of the last Old Florida areas left in the state and people come here for that,” said Sponge Diver Supply store owner Anestis Karistinos, whose family has been in the sponge business here for three generations.
“To change that is to change, really, what we are.”
Karistinos says he supported some of the elements of the plan, such as raising a section of the road to make it even with steep curbs and possibly even the addition of the wooden docks.
Along the main drag of the docks, many – though not all – merchants echo his concerns about aspects of the plan that a former mayor has called too “modern.”
The plan is supported by business leaders and the entire city commission, which has held numerous public meetings to get shopkeepers, divers and residents on the same page.
Few critics find fault with the commissioners personally or with Tarpon Springs architect Ed Hoffman, who has taken great pains to fine-tune the plan to everybody’s satisfaction.
“We’re trying to make as many people happy as possible,” said Hoffman, who also designed the Sponge Exchange shopping plaza, built in the early 1980s to replace an aging storehouse and marketplace for the sponge industry.
Early plans to close the street in front of the docks to make a pedestrian thoroughfare were nixed.
An observation tower was dropped and the length of the brick sidewalk shortened.
Pieces that have stayed in the plan would actually add rather than detract from the town’s history, Hoffman says, such as bringing back the original brick and wood style to the docks rather than the concrete that was poured in more modern times.
Other elements may become part of the town’s fabric with the passage of time, he says.
“Nostalgia is a thing that moves in time and this little amphitheater, for example, is foreign to the 1920s dock, but it will be a wonderful part of the nostalgia of the next generation,” Hoffman said.
The city commission voted in favor of the plans, which also include additional docks for transient boaters and wooden way-finding kiosks shaped like old river beacons. Construction bids are due by the end of March.
In the spring, the commission must determine whether the entire project can be completed within budget or just City leaders have had to walk a line between preserving the Sponge Docks’ storied past as a commercial port with the need to update it for tourists, a crucial economic driver for the city and the county, says Sue Thomas, president of the Tarpon Springs Chamber of Commerce.
“We get a lot of negative comments from visitors about how the Sponge Docks look old and worn out, that it hasn’t been fixed up and it looks like a flea market,” she said.
Any changes must take into account the smaller but still active sponging industry, though, she said.
“We don’t want to be so fancy and modern that our sponge boats and our fishing boats aren’t comfortable coming in because that’s a huge part of who we are,” she said.
“I think it will be like everything else: once it’s done and everybody gets used to it, they’ll love it.”
Longtime sponge retailer Harry Klimis says his customers like things the way they are.
“I’ve been here all these years and my reckoning is people want to come and see what was here all these years,” said Klimis, a former diver who helps run Tarpon Sponge Inc., with his daughter, Athena Klimis-Tsardoulias.
“What they’re doing is modifying it to a point where it will become unrecognizable.”
George Billiris, a former diver who has worked hard to keep the local industry alive here over the course of his career, says the town ought to prioritize making the sponge business viable again.
“We are a very good tourist attraction, not by design; nobody sat down and said let’s make this a tourist attraction,” said Billiris, whose family has run the St. Nicholas Boat Line tours for decades.
Key to sustaining tourism, he says, is maintaining the town’s identity as a genuine commercial center for sponge diving.