Business as usual for Tarpon merchants after fire
TARPON SPRINGS -
The Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks echoed with the sounds of live music, tourists with foreign accents and bustling shopkeepers Sunday afternoon, but just days before it was a din of sirens and crackling flames.
A shrimp boat caught fire Tuesday night at its mooring in the Anclote River and dumped thousands of gallons of diesel into the water, leaving locals that make their living off the town’s historic sponging industry wondering how their businesses would be affected.
After a weekend full of visitors, and a Sunday performance by The Florida Orchestra’s Bayside Spring Quartet at Spring Bayou, the only damage that could spread to the shops along the sponge docks is bad publicity, said Nicholas Karagiannis, who has owned Nick Bada Bing Tobacco King cigar stand along the sponge docks since 1997.
“I watched them try to put the fire out. There was a lot of smoke, a lot of debris, and then it stunk for a couple days, but I think it was short term,” he said. “I don’t think it had an overall impact on the community. The biggest thing will be the exposure. Fire always scares people away.”
The Coast Guard, local law enforcement and fire departments from Pinellas and Hillsborough counties helped contain and clean up the damage from the Skye Marie, which was filled with 6,000 gallons of fuel when it caught fire and sank into the waters. The cause of the fire is still unknown.
With no injuries and limited damage, business was back to normal by the weekend, said Joy Georgiou, owner of the Dolphin Gift Shop and deep sea fishing tours. But unfortunately, for this time of year, that means business is slow and anything that could deter tourists will make a huge impact, she said. Her mother had to evacuate her home on the third story of the gift shop around midnight Tuesday, and they had to “wait and see” where the fire would end up. That uncertainty is still looming among the local businesses.
“It’s slow, because it’s offseason between the winter and summer tourists, so it’s hard to say whether the fire has made a huge impact on the shop,” Georgiou said. “But tourism is our livelihood, it’s everything.”
A performance by the Florida Orchestra’s Bayside String Quartet at the Tarpon Springs Heritage Museum may have drawn some visitors to the area on Sunday.
“We never talked about cancelling the show,” said violist Kathie Aagaard. “Today our songs are more like love songs, lullabies, very soothing and joyful. It’s very reflective of the community. … Even with the fire; people are coming out and enjoying the beautiful day.”
Cindy Wilson sees the mangled Skye Marie every time she walks out the backdoor of Sweeties Ice Cream Parlor, her business of six years. The river is open, most of the oil and booms placed to contain the spill have been removed, but the smell of oil still hangs in the air.
“We were really lucky,” Wilson said. “The BP spill is still the worst disaster that’s ever hit Tarpon Springs. Even though it didn’t directly affect us, tourism really suffered. I think they did a really good job cleaning everything up as fast as they did and it really made me feel safer and confident in the firemen and police in town.”
Wilson said locals’ sights are now set on finding a way to help boat owner Billy Harris, and will discuss ideas at an upcoming Chamber of Commerce meeting.
Tourists like Gary Johnson and Tom Ablewhite, from Nottinghamshire, England, were in town Sunday helping to contribute to Tarpon Springs’ $20 million a year tourism industry. The men spent the week traveling around Florida golfing. They heard about the fire, but decided to follow through with their stop in Tarpon Springs anyway, and found that “everything is quite nice.”
“We came here for the sponges,” Johnson said. “We had heard a lot about Tarpon Springs from travelers’ books and it’s like a typical old American village, and the Greek heritage makes it very unique. Everything has been wonderful.”
Sunday was the first day Scott Konger, owner of the Tarpon Springs Aquarium, felt comfortable using water from the river in his aquarium tanks since Tuesday night. There was no odor or noticeable change in color, he said. Animals and fish are still alive. The long-term impact on the local ecology will be minimal, as most of the oil has evaporated or burned away, he said. But the effect on the community remains to be seen.
“It really could have been a major catastrophe. There are times when whole cities would burn down in circumstances like that,” Konger said. “The only thing that bothers me is that the day after the fire we got hundreds of calls asking if we were still open or if we burned down. …. We just need people to know that it’s business as usual here. Please don’t cancel your trips.”