TARPON SPRINGS — In May, city commissioners agreed to allow restaurants and retail stores to expand their outdoor dining and merchandise display capacities, part the city’s plan to help the local economy recover from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
According to Economic Development Manager Karen Lemmons, that aspect of phase one of Tarpon’s Business Recovery Plan proved to be popular with merchants and patrons, as dozens of businesses all over town have taken advantage of the extra space.
“To date, we’ve got dozens of stores that are displaying merchandise outside, have added signage and balloons and things like that,” Lemmons told commissioners June 9. “And then we’ve had at least 20 restaurants that have expanded their outdoor dining. These restaurants are located throughout the city, and we’ve been happy to see that.”
After noting the accommodations “have been very well received by the businesses and the public,” Lemmons asked for approval to extend the accommodations, which were set to expire that day, to July 14. The request was met with unanimous support from the commission.
“I think it’s going to help the businesses, plus it’s more pleasurable for the people to enjoy themselves when they’re having dinner,” Mayor Chris Alahouzos said. "So, I’m in favor of that.”
Vice-Mayor Jacob Karr agreed while suggesting they extend the order until the Sunday after the July 14 meeting to give merchants time to disassemble their outdoor displays should the order not be reextended.
“I think we should give the business owners a little more notice, other than maybe a couple of hours, that they won’t be able to set up outside,” Karr said.
Commissioner Townsend Tarapani asked City Manager Mark LeCouris if he envisioned having more requests to close streets similar to what was done on South Hibiscus Street downtown, and LeCouris said he didn’t anticipate any and said if he did receive one, the decision would come before the board for approval.
While the Tarpon commissioners, business owners and patrons have supported the extra outdoor accommodations, at least one person is unhappy with the closure of South Hibiscus, a short section of road off East Tarpon Avenue that runs behind St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral.
“I think special treatment is being done just for this one spot,” Panagiotis Koulias said during the public comments. “You guys are blocking off a road that’s a main lighter traffic road to our Orthodox church where senior citizens get dropped off on the back end and where the funeral hearses are supposed to go through, and I think it’s disgraceful.”
Koulias added by keeping Hibiscus closed the city is “choking up the Orthodox faithful of Tarpon Springs, and many of us do not appreciate it.”
Soon after the extended accommodations went into effect May 12, Back Draughts Pizza owner George Walts expressed a desire to keep that section of South Hibiscus closed permanently.
“I’d love to get this to be permanent, absolutely,” Walts said May 15 as he prepped his new outdoor dining area adjacent to his restaurant.
Today, there’s an online petition circulating to keep Hibiscus closed permanently that has nearly 400 signatures out of a stated goal of 1,000.
But, based on Koulias’ remarks, there could be an uphill battle to make the temporary change permanent.
The board approved the request to extend the outdoor accommodations to July 19 by a 5-0 vote, with the commission agreeing to revisit the item during its July 14 meeting.