TARPON SPRINGS, FL – A little over a year after a landslide victory that rendered him the first Greek-born mayor of Tarpon Springs, FL Chris Alahouzos is focusing on, among other things, fulfilling a proposal he often talked about on the campaign trail: seeking to attract private investors to develop, construct, and operate a bona fide hotel in this Gulf Coast town, which has highest Greek-American population, percentage-wise, in the country.
Travel & Leisure magazine recently included Tarpon Springs among the “most European cities” in the United States. The list included Boston, DC, and San Francisco, but anyone who has been to Tarpon would probably acknowledge that as far as resembling some portion of Europe, it is in a class by itself.
The area was inhabited by Greeks over a hundred years ago, predominantly from the Dodecanese islands of Kalymnos, Chalki, and Symi, as the new settlers were able to ply their trade of spongediving – which they honed on the Greek islands – in the Gulf of Mexico.
Tarpon’s historic and picturesque Sponge Docks feature an array of fishing and sponging boats moored at the Anclote River, with a plethora of restaurants and gift shops, most emitting Greek music from their loudspeakers all day long, situated along the Docks’ main thoroughfare, Dodecanese Boulevard.
This idyllic, almost mythical community welcomes droves of tourists by day – most of them not of Greek descent – who populate the restaurants and gift shops, take tours on the boats, and walk along the Boulevard, enjoying maritime scents amid mild, tropical breezes. But there’s one big problem: most of them are only there for the day, having discovered Tarpon via travel brochures in the hotels where they stay for a week or two, in the nearby beach towns of Clearwater, Dunedin, and St. Petersburg.
A big reason they don’t stay overnight, or for a few days, Alahouzos told TNH, is the lack of a bona fide hotel. For those who would like to stay the night, there are a couple of quaint bed-and-breakfastoptions, a couple of low-budget, no-frills motels, and some private homes for rent via websites such as AirBnB and Homeway. But there is no actual hotel in Tarpon Springs, and certainly not one close enough to walk to the Docks, to the beaches, or to the emerging bar, restaurant, and music scene on Tarpon Avenue.
And that is exactly what Alahouzos would like to change. He hopes to attract private investors to develop a good-sized parcel of property for sale at the head of Dodecanese Boulevard. “It is the gateway to our city,” he told TNH. The venture would be entirely private, he said, because “the city is not in the business of doing things like this.” But having spent many decades in the business world, Alahouzos understands the value of such a proposition. The entire community would benefit tremendously, Alahouzos believes, because the hotel would bolster tourism, encourage more businesses to open, and in turn create jobs for Tarpon residents.
As he told TNH throughout his campaign, Alahouzos continues to believe that a thriving, bustling economy in Tarpon will provide a promising future for its residents and encourage them to stay in the area – not only to continue living there, but to spend evenings and weekends in Tarpon rather than driving to other close-by cities and towns for entertainment.
AMERICA’S GREEK ISLAND
As with any business, a well-conceived and executed plan is essential. An enterprise can be an absolute goldmine or waste away and eventually close down. Perhaps the key, then, is to market the hotel – and, in turn, the entire town – based on its competitive edge: no other part of the United States even comes close to resembling a Greek island as Tarpon Springs does. Not Astoria or the various Greektowns in other major U.S. cities. Sure, they have large Greek populations – larger than Tarpon in sheer numbers, in fact – and ample Greek restaurants, but the overall atmosphere doesn’t make tourists feel like they’re in Greece, any more so than the St. Patrick’s Day parade on Fifth Avenue makes them feel as if they’re in Ireland.
Tarpon is unique in that respect and, just as this writer first discovered 21 years ago, there is no better venue to enjoy the appeal of both Greece and America all in one place. The key is to get the message out there, because there are still many Greek-Americans who’ve never been, and don’t realize what they’re missing.