Wednesday, November 22, 2017
News Roundup

Mystery property buyer in downtown Clearwater brings questions about Scientology's involvement

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CLEARWATER — An Ybor City real estate broker has been snapping up downtown property on behalf of a buyer working very hard to remain secret.

This month, a newly former LLC called 601 Cleveland registered to Fred Edmister, acting as the broker, paid $13 million for the city's largest office tower, the nine-story, all-glass Atrium building, in the center of downtown.

On Jan. 13, a business called 715 Laura LLC, also registered to Edmister, bought an auto garage at that street address, less than a block from the Atrium, for $1.7 million, according to property records.

And on Nov. 18, Edmister registered a business with the state called 700 Cleveland Street LLC, although the Clearwater Mortgage building at that address, directly behind the auto garage, has not been sold, according to public records.

It's not an uncommon arrangement for real estate investors to buy property through a broker to keep their names out of public records. But with the anonymity of the owner, and the potential acquisition of three properties within a block of one another, speculation has turned again to the default assumption whenever downtown property changes hands — that the Church of Scientology is somehow involved.

"I've heard that people associated with the church have bought the (Atrium) property, but I do not know for sure," Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos said.

Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw did not respond to requests for comment this week. But he told the Tampa Bay Times earlier this month that the church "has no further plans to expand our campus downtown."

That statement hasn't prevented downtown watchers from speculating that the church is secretly working to expand its real estate footprint in the city.

"Everybody was saying it was Scientology," said Tom O'Brien, who has rented space in the Atrium for his Tiger Real Estate Opportunity Fund for 12 years but does not know who now owns his building.

Since first arriving in Clearwater in 1975, the Church of Scientology has accumulated more than $260 million in real estate, 75 percent of which is tax exempt for religious purposes. It occupies whole blocks of downtown and has its worldwide spiritual headquarters steps from City Hall.

The church was also pursuing the 1.4-acre vacant lot across the street from City Hall and offered the owner, Clearwater Marine Aquarium, $4.25 million for it in 2014. But on Tuesday, City Attorney Pam Akin said staffers were drafting a purchase contract with the aquarium for the city to buy the property in March.

Edmister did not respond to repeated calls for comment or a letter hand-delivered to his National Realty Commercial's office.

But he has a history of representing confidential buyers in large transactions. In 2006, he bought five properties for $28,165, put them in two land trusts whose beneficiaries were secret and then flipped them to the Hillsborough County School District for nearly $124,000 — a 340 percent markup.

On Tuesday, Clearwater Mortgage owner Scott Chinchar told a Times reporter to leave when asked about the sale of his building. A man who identified himself as the owner of All Around Repairs, which sold on Jan. 13 to Edmister's LLC, also told a Times reporter to leave when asked if the Church of Scientology was the true buyer of his building.

Wendy Eckert, who spent the past eight years working for the Atrium's previous owner, Maurice Wilder, said she was hired by the new property management company, Avison Young, after the Feb. 1 sale to continue managing the building. She said leases of the tenants are being renewed.

But even Eckert doesn't know whom she is really working for.

"None of us have been given his name," Eckert said. "He obviously wants to be kept confidential."

Seth Taylor, director of the Community Redevelopment Agency, a special downtown taxing district that includes the Atrium property, said he had no idea who now really owns the high-rise.

Atrium tenants were told at the end of January to begin sending their rent payments to Avison Young's Fort Lauderdale office.

Antje Victore said the lease for her Cars2Go auto rental business office on the fifth floor is up in March and she has not been notified she would not be able to renew.

Victore moved into the Atrium in 2005 after her former office at 41 N Fort Harrison was bought by Scientology and turned into the church's Foundation for a Drug Free World.

"I'm wondering now, should I be concerned?" she said.

With its all-glass walls and prominence in downtown, the Atrium has been a longtime landmark anchored by SunTrust Bank and filled with more than 30 other businesses like Morgan Stanley, World Financial Group and Merrill Lynch.

Its former owner paid $123,449 in property taxes on the Atrium in 2016. The building would be tax exempt if used for religious purposes.

The city bought the 158,000-square-foot high-rise in the 1993 with intentions of turning it into a new City Hall but sold it months later when the makeup of the City Council, and opinions, changed.

The city is currently implementing a 10-year, potentially $55 million revitalization plan to stimulate the downtown core and waterfront, and Bill Sturtevant, former chair of the nonprofit Clearwater Downtown Partnership, said maintaining high-end office space and businesses that are open to the public is essential to economic development.

With the buyer, and fate, of these properties unknown, Sturtevant said he hopes the uses stay in the public interest.

"Office space is critical to the redevelopment of downtown," he said. "The most important thing for us to grow is there needs to be available space for the public."

Times staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

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