TARPON SPRINGS – Over the past year, city officials have made plans to replace and restore a variety of old and damaged signs throughout the city. New signs are currently in the works for the six entryways into the city, the streets in the historic district and at the Sponge Docks as well as an entryway sign at the docks, and for certain historic buildings and significant sites in town.
After making the historic signs, which would contain factual information about properties with significant historic importance, a top priority, Economic Development Director Karen Lemmons convened a panel of residents who have historical knowledge of the city, including Tina Bucuvalas, Annie Dabbs and Costa Vatikiotis, to produce a list of 10 high priority sites to start with.
According to a July 18 Lemmons memo to City Manager Mark LeCouris, however, “After a lengthy discussion, the group agreed that trying to select top 10 historical sites was nearly impossible,” adding, “In the end, the group was not comfortable naming any site.”
The impasse did not sit well with some City Commission members, including Jacob Karr.
“I don’t want to wait any longer,” Karr said. “We need to move forward with this.”
Karr provided his own list of 10, primarily city-owned sites that he said should be addressed first. They include Sunset Beach, City Hall, Spring Bayou and the Train Depot.
Mayor Chris Alahouzos agreed with those choices, and he also recommended including the Union Academy Family Center, a former schoolhouse that is a relic of the era of public education segregation in Pinellas County, as well as sponge packaging warehouses that are still in operation.
Commissioner Connor Donovan said he was “fine with the logic of going with the properties we own first,” but he did not want to move forward before guidelines were established for inclusion in the program.
“I need to have the criteria for selecting the properties,” Donovan said, adding, “I think these signs are a great idea. I just want to make sure the public really knows what we’re going for.”
Bucuvalas, an author, producer, folklorist and historian who was the city’s curator of arts and history until earlier this year, said she appreciated the commission’s enthusiasm in wanting to push this forward. She added, however, the panel advised against proceeding without having a proper plan, as well as funding, in place.
“None of us believed it was time to move forward without greater public input in this,” she said. Many of the buildings listed are of Victorian/Anglo-Saxon origins and therefore were “unfortunately not representative of other important components of our city, and we could do better.”
After receiving support to move forward with the 10 city-owned sites, plus the Union Academy building, from Dabbs and others, the commission gave consensus to do just that.
According to LeCouris, the historic signs will be done in phases of eight to 10, with each phase estimated to cost between $2,000 and $2,500. “I’m hoping there’s money left over this budget cycle so we can try to see something in the ground,” he said.
“I applaud the BOC's enthusiasm to recognize sites of historical importance, but this is a process that requires careful consideration of criteria for selection and in-depth knowledge of our history that goes beyond the few locally written books or common knowledge,” Bucuvalas wrote in an email after the meeting. “The suggested initial focus on city-owned buildings provides an easy first step because it requires no permissions from private owners. Unfortunately, this approach will stress Victorian-era and predominantly formal Anglo-American history and culture, and therefore is not representative of the vitally important Greek and African American populations. While there is good intention, the BOC is proceeding without a comprehensive plan or enough funding to ensure that this effort will continue.”
Vatikiotis, a former city manager and engineer who has said he will run for a seat on the City Commission next year, said: “The primary reason why the group that attended the Karen Lemons meeting were uncomfortable in recommending any historical sites is that the group was asked to select the ‘10 best’ historical sites in the city. We felt that portraying any historical site as being the best was inappropriate.
“On the other hand, in the absence any selection criteria, starting with city-owned sites that also includes the Union Academy building is reasonable.”
Vatikiotis and Bucuvalas also noted the historic Safford House Museum and the city-owned Sponge Docks already have historic signs in place.