CLEARWATER — It can be argued that the two biggest names in Clearwater are Winter the dolphin and L. Ron Hubbard. Now a behind-the-scenes dispute between their followers has broken out into the open.
Officials from the Church of Scientology, the biggest property owner in downtown Clearwater, are quietly lobbying Pinellas County commissioners, voicing their opposition to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium's plans to relocate downtown.
Clearwater residents voted last December to allow the aquarium to lease public land on the downtown bluff, and the city's elected leaders unanimously support the relocation.
Scientology representatives have been meeting with county commissioners who will decide whether the aquarium gets bed tax dollars, which would be a significant source of funding for its expansion.
The aquarium will be one of several attractions seeking a share of roughly $6 million in annual tourist tax revenue that will be freed up next year when Pinellas County finishes paying off its debt on Tropicana Field.
"The message was pretty clear to me. They didn't want an aquarium downtown," said Commissioner Charlie Justice, who recently met with Scientology staffers Pat Harney and Lisa Mansell. "They cast shade on almost every aspect of the aquarium project."
Justice said the church representatives argued that an aquarium wasn't the best use for the waterfront site. "It was clear that they didn't think it was the best use of bed tax dollars," he said.
Commissioner Ken Welch got the same message.
"I don't think they feel (the aquarium) is compatible with their vision of downtown Clearwater — that downtown is more suitable for retail, and tourism facilities should be on the beach," Welch said. He said they mentioned Tampa's International Plaza as the kind of high-end retail that church members could support. Welch was told the church has hired a "retail strategist" to study what mix of stores makes sense downtown.
However, retail outlets have long struggled there. In fact, the city's leaders have high hopes that a new aquarium on the bluff will draw visitors from busy Clearwater Beach to its moribund downtown.
"The Church of Scientology has not told me that it is opposed to the aquarium being in downtown," Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos said. "We are trying to redevelop downtown for everybody, not just for the Church of Scientology."
For its part, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium isn't looking for a fight with Scientology.
"No one from the church has talked to us," aquarium CEO David Yates said. "We went through a referendum, and we have a lot of support. Despite that, a number of groups have voiced opposition to our goal, and they have every right to do so."
Aquarium officials believe they can make a strong case to receive bed tax dollars. They say Winter, the tailless dolphin that has starred in two Hollywood films and resides at the aquarium, is a big draw for Pinellas County.
The aquarium had 600,000 visitors last year. It plans to ask for a commitment of $1.5 million per year for 20 years from the bed tax. Pinellas' 5 percent tax on hotel rooms generates about $30 million a year, which can be spent on advertising, beach restoration and tourism projects.
Scientology officials wouldn't comment to the Tampa Bay Times. However, in an email to Clearwater officials Wednesday, Harney, a Scientology spokeswoman, denied that the church is opposed to the aquarium's relocation.
"We're not pro- or anti- the aquarium," Harney wrote. "We just have questions and are pointing out facts."
However, county commissioners got a different message.
"From my perspective, they clearly have designs on the property as well, and believed it could generate more tax revenue than a nonprofit, taxpayer-funded aquarium," Commissioner Norm Roche said.
"They don't think anything should be in Clearwater except for them," said Commissioner Janet Long, who has yet to meet with Scientology officials. "They're gobbling up every piece of property they can get their hands on."