TARPON SPRINGS — The multiphased, multimillion-dollar Anclote River Dredge Project has been touted as a bipartisan collaboration between local, county, state and federal governments.
Unfortunately, Tarpon Springs officials recently learned the state’s contribution of more than $800,000 for work on the Extended Turning Basin portion of the project was vetoed by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The news was met with disappointment by Mayor Chris Alahouzos who, along with state Rep. Chris Sprowls, Sen. Ed Hooper and other legislators, worked hard to ensure the funding for the section of the project not included in the federal channel would be covered by the state.
“I received a phone call today from Chris Sprowls that the funding for Extended Turning Basin, even though it was approved by representatives from the Senate, has been denied by the governor,” Alahouzos said by phone June 29. “So, I am very disappointed the governor denied that, but I’m going to encourage my commission colleagues to vote to approve funding for this so the project can move forward because it’s so important not just to the economy of Tarpon Springs, but all of Pinellas County.”
Indeed, several lawmakers, including U.S. Congressman Gus Bilirakis, have gone to bat for the dredge project, which would restore the river channel, the turning basin and the extended turning basin to their original depths following decades of silt and sediment buildup.
“Fifty-six percent of our seafood commerce comes from the Anclote River,” Bilirakis said from the Sponge Docks in May 2019 after he worked to resecure $3 million in federal funding for the project that had been diverted to hurricane relief efforts in the Panhandle. “So, it’s very important to the entire Tampa Bay area. That’s why you gotta be persistent.”
Last month, during a Zoom call with state legislators hosted by the Council of North County Neighborhoods, Sprowls commented at length about the importance of the project to the county.
“One project that’s a great example of non-traditional infrastructure with the state, local and federal governments working together is the Turning Basin Dredge in Tarpon Springs,” he said. “It’s a great example of government working together and … it will have a huge economic impact on Pinellas County.”
During the same session, in response to a question about how the COVID-19 pandemic could affect the budget, Hooper replied, “It’s going to be a challenge,” adding, “I’ve got to worry about Mayor Alahouzos’ turning basin budget getting the axe!”
After the axe fell Monday, Alahouzos said they would have to turn to plan B.
“We have money in the Penny for Pinellas funds that I will encourage my colleagues to approve to be used for this project, but that’s money that could have been used for other projects in the city,” he said, adding, “I’m very disappointed because Chris and Ed and (Rep.) Chris Latvala and others have worked so hard for this. I feel sick right now. But we have to go to plan B.”
Pinellas County Commissioner Dave Eggers, who assisted with the county’s contribution to the project, agreed and said he reached out to Alahouzos to see what he could do to help.
“That one hurt,” Eggers said when questioned about the cut during a Zoom call on Wednesday, July 1. “That hurt because it was a local effort from the city of Tarpon Springs, from the county, the state was involved and we had some federal funds as well and a lot of businesses rely on that canal being opened … and it became a really important project from an economic development standpoint, from an environmental standpoint, and from a tourism standpoint.”
Eggers noted he’d already spoken to Alahouzos and “I told him come to us, talk to us about what that next step is because I think it’s really important. It’s an important port and we’ve got to do what we can to keep it open, so I am going to work hard to see if we can find some added funding somewhere to address that.”
In related news, the city recently learned it would be reimbursed by the county for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ survey and permitting work.
“The (Pinellas) County Commission allowed us to have $330,000 for surveying and permitting of the federal channel. The Army Corps of Engineers is doing the work now and it’s time to pay for that,” Alahouzos said during a City Commission meeting June 23. “So as soon as we pay for that, we’ll be reimbursed by the county, and I was assured we’ll get the money soon.”
City commissioners are scheduled to meet Tuesday, July 14.