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Tarpon Springs seeking to honor sponger George Billiris

TARPON SPRINGS — The city is considering a way to honor the legacy of the late longtime sponge merchant George Billiris at a city building.

"We know how he promoted Tarpon Springs," Commissioner David Banther said at a recent City Commission meeting.

Billiris was known for spreading the word of what Tarpon Springs is all about through word of mouth, film and writing. He tried to revitalize the sponge industry, including bringing Greek divers to the city to produce a new generation of sponge-harvesters.

Billiris, died last year at 89. In March, the commission honored Billiris and presented his widow, former Mayor Beverley Billiris, with a plaque. Banther first introduced the idea of honoring him in the city in some way.

Eight months later, Banther was back with a more concrete plan.

The Tarpon Springs Heritage Center, or the "old library," as Banther calls the former home of the Tarpon Springs Public Library, has two separate wings. On the left, artwork, mostly by Christopher Still, is displayed. The right, however, is more focused on Greek heritage and history.

"On the right wing of the building, name it the George M. Billiris Wing," Banther said. "This might be the first step in revitalizing the building."

Banther believes that adding a prominent name like Billiris might spark the addition of new exhibits, and make the space utilized more.

However, Mayor Chris Alahouzos said Billiris was just one of many contributors to Tarpon Springs and the sponge industry.

"I've gotten calls from people and they are concerned," Alahouzos said. "They would want it to be named for the spongers, and have a plaque with names for all of the spongers."

Banther said he didn't intend to "leave any family out," but he believes that honoring Billiris could bring more awareness to the building, the city and all spongers.

Commissioner Rea Sieber agreed. "I would like to see George have some type of honor,'' she said. "I can't think of another place better."

The Billiris family members in attendance agreed.

"George was in every magazine in every country, throughout the United States. There would be six pages about Tarpon Springs," said Beverly Billiris. "The man lived and breathed it."

She said all divers should be honored, but she thinks George should be singled out.

"They used to bring in between 800,000 and a million tourists each year. That was because he was always out promoting the community," she said. "Journalists would come to Tarpon Springs from all over the country to interview George. And he wouldn't talk about George. He would talk about the divers that gave their lives for this community."

When the sponge industry started to go downhill, Beverly Billiris said, George started to teach about sponging at St. Petersburg College.

"If we could look inside of him, we would probably find sponge and not blood," George's sister, Frances Billiris, said.

Commissioner Susan Miccio-Kikta agreed that the center should feature George Billiris' name.

"George was a pillar of this community. He taught us about the sponging industry, but he was responsible for bringing tourists to this community. He made the Sponge Docks survive. He made so many documentaries and films," Kikta said. "If we want to honor other fishermen, that may be more appropriate down at the Sponge Docks."

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