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Tarpon Springs business owners have been suffering from the yearlong gap in special events like First Friday. City and local merchants association officials have been working to restart events in town, albeit slowly.

TARPON SPRINGS — There’s little doubt most Tarpon Springs residents, business owners and civic leaders want the city to resume hosting special events following a yearlong hiatus due to the coronavirus.

The question is how to do so safely and economically.

The issue has been a hot topic of discussion ever since former commissioner Rea Sieber took to the City Hall podium expressing concerns about how the lack of special events is damaging Tarpon’s economy.

“We all understand the dangers of this virus, but now with increased vaccines and a decrease in the number of infections we feel it’s time to start thinking about our economy in Tarpon Springs,” she said during the March 9 Board of Commissioners meeting.

Sieber, who owns a wine shop on the Sponge Docks, said they “are very fortunate to have some snowbirds here now,” but she added they’re “not even close to recovering our losses from last year. This is why we need to do all we can to attract visitors to Tarpon.”

During the March 23 meeting, City Manager Mark LeCouris said he has been working with county leaders as well as the local merchants association to help formulate a plan to host special events again.

“Ever since the beginning of the year all the city managers have been working together to try and have a consistent policy on events when things open up and we start having them again,” LeCouris said, noting the county has strict requirements for events with more than 1,000 people. Tarpon’s First Friday events typically draw upwards of 5,000 people to the downtown district, while the Tarpon Springs Merchants Association sold more than 700 tickets to its last Wine Walk before the pandemic struck.

It’s with these factors in mind LeCouris said they are coming up with creative ways to host events, including the possibility of moving the city’s annual Fourth of July fireworks celebration to Labor Day, as well as introducing new events designed to help jump-start the local economy.

To that point, TSMA officials presented a pair of small-scale events, including a monthly farmer’s market with 30 vendors that would be held in the Mother Meres parking lot every second Saturday beginning May 8, as well as a Shop the Docks event on May 22 featuring a dozen vendors on Dodecanese Boulevard, for approval by the board, describing them as a way to “get their feet wet” hosting special events again.

“We’ve been working with the city for maybe a month now, touring other markets seeing about us bringing a market to Tarpon Springs,” TSMA special events coordinator Carol Rodriguez explained, noting the vendors would offer homemade bread, produce and homemade items. “So, we’re hoping that our merchants will want to participate in this.”

According to TSMA board member Sherry Wendt, the Shop the Docks event would feature a dozen vendors as well as a musician and would be paired with a Wine Walk in the evening to create a unique doubleheader. “We felt it’s a way to blossom out,” she said, adding, “if this works out, we will do whatever we are allowed to do in the future.”

Wendt said they are “ready to put on events” but they know their events like First Friday and Hippiefest well exceed the 1,000-person limit that triggers county involvement.

“We want to do this,” she said. “But we do have a Pinellas County ordinance we have to try to work with or it becomes next to impossible.”

LeCouris concurred. “There’s a lot you have to do to meet the county’s criteria,” he said, adding, “We are absolutely dependent on the county.”

According to Sieber, the proposed events are “disappointing” because she believes they need larger events to boost the city’s tourism-reliant economy. “We need customers. We need people,” she said.

Commissioner Townsend Tarapani agreed, stating he thinks “the special events are probably something that’s been overdue to get the ball rolling,” and he also said the city should help provide funding for anything required by the county, including fencing and barricades, thermometers and other items.

“The residents and the merchants rely tremendously on at least one special event a month,” he said. “So, I definitely think it’s something we need to move forward with.”

The board eventually agreed to move forward with the pair of events, approving both items by 5-0 votes.

Afterward, Rodriguez pointed out the TSMA has remained active in the community while working on the plans to restart the events.

“We held our annual Christmas Angel fund over the holidays where we provide toys and goods to families in need, and we recently helped acquire eight picnic tables for homeless to use at the Shepherd Center,” she said, adding they spent more than $33,000 in advertising last year.

Regarding taking heat for the lack of events, Rodriguez said “they’re blaming us and they’re blaming Mark, but really it’s the county. Nobody wants to do anything in the county because they think it’s too dangerous. But we’re trying and we’re working on some things, hopefully maybe by August. President Biden is saying it could be safe to have large gatherings on July 4, so we’ll see.”