CLEARWATER — On the campaign trail and during recent debates, City Council candidate John Funk has made one issue the crux of his platform.
He has questioned whether the city should be prioritizing its $55 million waterfront redesign Imagine Clearwater and business incentives as the keys to revitalize downtown. Instead he is pushing a redevelopment idea of his own:
Funk has proposed luring a private developer to build a boutique outdoor mall on a roughly 10-acre cluster of properties along the south side of Drew Street between Fort Harrison Avenue and the railroad tracks on East Avenue. With the right investor and cooperation of the property owners, he has said, the area could be turned into a high-end shopping center like Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, Calif.
He pivoted to the proposal in two recent debates when asked specific questions about Imagine Clearwater, downtown parking, business incentives, regionalism and restaurant recruitment.
"There’s a part of downtown that is a jewel box as far as I’m concerned," Funk said at a Feb. 8 City Hall forum. "I would boldly like to say we need to see about developing that 10-acre piece."
Most of the footprint in Funk’s 10-acre proposal is controlled by the Church of Scientology or its parishioners. Even if he were to recruit an interested developer, the project would require Scientology and the other property owners to sell or agree to redevelop their properties.
Funk, 71, a real estate broker, declined an interview with the Tampa Bay Times to discuss specifics of his plan or whether he’s working with Scientology officials. Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw did not respond to questions about whether the church was working with Funk.
However, Funk’s proposal mirrors some aspects of a redevelopment project Scientology pitched last year for downtown, home to the church’s international spiritual headquarters.
In March 2017, Scientology leader David Miscavige offered to renovate Cleveland Street buildings, recruit high-end retail to empty storefronts in the downtown core and build an entertainment complex with actor Tom Cruise on three blocks of mostly vacant land along Myrtle Avenue.
Miscavige hinged the offer to build this "outdoor mall" on the condition the city agree to step aside so he could buy a 1.4-acre vacant lot on Pierce Street the church needed for its campus. He rescinded the entire retail offer in April, when the city bought the Pierce Street property from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium for $4.25 million, a third of the price Miscavige offered.
Miscavige purchased the mostly vacant Myrtle Avenue stretch for $9 million in February 2017 under a limited liability corporation in anticipation of the now-defunct retail project.
A one-block portion of Scientology’s Myrtle property covers the eastern boundary of Funk’s 10-acre development proposal.
At the Feb. 8 candidate forum at City Hall, Funk described the boundaries of his proposal as "the south of Drew Street behind Fort Harrison and to the west of the railroad tracks behind Bank of America." At a Clearwater Downtown Partnership forum on Feb. 5, he brought a rendering of the site that excluded part of Scientology’s buildings along Fort Harrison, which have the public Waterson Avenue behind them.
When asked to clarify the discrepancies of the boundaries in an email with the Times, Funk responded vaguely: "After decades of inaction it’s time to let the marketplace set the boundaries. The developer has indicated that this would be the general area."
Funk did not name a developer he is working with and declined an interview request for specifics. Shaw did not respond to the question of whether Funk’s proposal is related to Miscavige’s 2017 retail plan.
The church controls nearly every parcel on the western boundary of Funk’s proposal of Fort Harrison Avenue, with four buildings owned under the Scientology name, one under a corporation managed by church secretary Glen Stilo, and one owned by a corporation authorized by renowned pianist and Scientologist Chick Corea, according to property records.
Separate corporations managed by Scientology parishioner Fabio Zaniboni own one property on Drew Street and one on N Garden Avenue within Funk’s footprint. Zaniboni did not respond to a request for comment.
Another property on Drew Street is owned by a corporation registered to parishioner Vladislav Musatov, who could not be reached for comment.
Andrew Nall, owner of Nall Lumber on Drew Street, is the longest resident of this stretch, with his family’s business in the same location for 102 years. Nall, who said he is not a member of Scientology, said he has no plans to sell.
Although Funk has publicly proposed naming the outdoor mall "The Nall Mall" in honor of the family, Nall said he does not approve the use of his name.
"He hasn’t approached us about it," Nall said.
Investor Daniels Ikajevs owns a large parking lot that takes up roughly a third of the 10-acre footprint. Ikajevs, who has said previously he is not a member of Scientology, did not respond to a request for comment.
Nine of the 12 properties in the cluster sold within the last decade for a combined $13.3 million, according to property records. Additionally, Scientology bought the stretch of parcels along Myrtle Avenue in one $9 million deal but only the portion to the west of the railroad tracks overlaps into Funk’s proposal.
Funk, who is running against Seat 5 incumbent Hoyt Hamilton in the March 13 election, is the only candidate in either of the two races to run his campaign with support from prominent Scientologists. Retired building contractor David Allbritton and advertising salesman Tom Keller are running for Seat 4, being vacated by the term-limited Bill Jonson.
Aside from the $3,196 Funk has used from his own pockets, most of the remaining $10,000 he has raised has come from prominent Scientology members like PostcardMania founder Joy Gendusa; Consumer Energy Solutions CEO Pat Clouden; cybersecurity training startup KnowBe4 owner Stu Sjouwerman; Markets for Makers founder Natalie Nagengast; David and Monica Agami, of the Agami family building the Skyview condo on Cleveland Street; Scientology donor Claire Loehwing; and Consumer Sales Solutions founder Tom Cummins, according to treasurer reports. He also received support from Mary Repper, a former political consultant who has done extensive public relations work for the church.
City Manager Bill Horne said in his 20 years as Clearwater’s top administrator, he’s never seen an elected official or a candidate push a development proposal without city staff input and collaboration.
Horne said Funk has not discussed the project with him or his staff, and the little information he’s gotten about it has been from the public candidate forums.
Typically, the City Council would vote as a body whether to use city resources to approach property owners and create a development plan. Or a developer would approach the city with a concept after already assembling property, Horne said.
"Our philosophy has always been ‘Let’s create the best environment for redevelopment,’?" Horne said. "Our philosophy has not been to go out and be the private sector and be the private market."
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.