TARPON SPRINGS – When it was reported in March that $3 million in federal funding for the Anclote River Dredge Project had been diverted to hurricane relief efforts in the Panhandle, Mayor Chris Alahouzos was upset, but he vowed the project would continue moving forward as planned.
“I am very, very unhappy with what’s going on, losing the funding for the project,” Alahouzos said during the March 19 City Commission meeting. The “project won’t stop” because he was planning at that time to ask U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis and U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott for help in getting the dredging funds restored.
Last week, following months of lobbying and bipartisan support, Bilirakis and Alahouzos announced that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had restored the funding to a group of local merchants, fisherman and environmental activists at the Sponge Docks.
“This was a team effort,” Bilirakis said from a dock outside Rusty Bellies Waterfront Grill on May 24.
The veteran lawmaker said he had worked with Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget and the acting White House Chief of Staff, as well as other officials in his bid to win back the dredge dollars.
“We discovered there was a disconnect between agencies, so we cut through the red tape and the White House backed me up,” Bilirakis said.
The Anclote River dredging is being funded through a joint effort involving the federal and state governments and Pinellas County and Tarpon Springs.
The $3 million from the Corps of Engineers, Bilirakis said, is sitting in an account specifically for the Anclote dredging project.
“It’s a real victory for the area,” the congressman said.
The multi-phased, multi-agency project will remove nearly two decades worth of silt and sediment from the riverbed, specifically in the shipping channel and turning basin, which will restore the river to its normal depth of 11 feet.
According to officials, some parts of the channel and basin are only four feet deep due to the buildup. As a result, many commercial vessels have been unable to utilize the docks which provide a large percentage of all the seafood produced in the greater Tampa Bay area.
Bilirakis, a Palm Harbor Republican who grew up in Tarpon Springs, said he fully understood the importance of the river to the region.
“I grew up in the area and I’m very familiar with the Anclote River and I know it’s very important to our area,” Bilirakis said. “That’s why you’ve got to be persistent. I didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”
Alahouzos, who along with his fellow commissioners undertook a major lobbying effort in pursuit of the diverted dredging funds, thanked Bilirakis for his hard work.
“I’m extremely happy and appreciative to Congressman Bilirakis for his efforts to restore the funding for this important project to the city of Tarpon Springs,” he said. “The importance of this project is huge because the local economy depends on this river.”
Because the river was so shallow in key spots, fishing vessels have been docking at other locations, Alahouzos said. “So, we need this project completed to bring them back to Tarpon Springs.”
Julie Russell, a longtime fixture of the Sponge Docks fishing industry and the owner of Rusty Bellies Waterfront Grill, agreed.
“It’s been a long time coming and I’m very glad to hear (the funding) has been secured,” Russell said. “It’ll help our industry as well as the tourism industry for Tarpon Springs.”
Russell, who along with her husband, Jack, opened the restaurant on Dodecanese Boulevard in 2005, after years working in her family’s seafood business, compared the dredging of the river to the reopening of an interstate.
“For us, it’s like opening up a highway,” she said with her 82-foot shrimp boat, the Julie Ann, in the background. “If the interstate was shut down, it would be a detriment to all the truckers. The river is the same way for us. We rely on it for seafood and to keep tourism alive. It’s absolutely imperative we get this done, and now we don’t have to wait three years to get it done. So, we’re very pleased.”
According to Alahouzos, the dredge project is still in the planning and design phase and should take about a year to complete.
“We all worked hard on this,” he said. “At times you find obstacles in the road and you either go over them or around them. We were able to overcome this obstacle thanks to Congressman Bilirakis’ hard work with officials in Washington (D.C) and the White House. It’s good to see it come together.”