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Man trying to sell Clearwater property using Church of Scientology as bargaining chip

Charlie Gruver, 53, who runs an auto garage that his father started years ago, is looking to sell five lots for $1.5 million between downtown and the beach causeway, prime real estate for Clearwater’s development.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

Charlie Gruver, 53, who runs an auto garage that his father started years ago, is looking to sell five lots for $1.5 million between downtown and the beach causeway, prime real estate for Clearwater’s development.

CLEARWATER — The owner of a downtown auto garage claims to have an unusual bargaining chip in his attempts to sell his property: the Church of Scientology.

Charlie Gruver offered his old gas station, Gruver's Chevron Service, to the city for $1.5 million. He said its location, on the way to Clearwater Beach, was a good fit for the city's downtown redevelopment plans.

Officials opted against buying the property, balking at the asking price. That's when Gruver told them he would instead sell the land to church representatives, who he said had recently shown interest.

In few cities would such a gambit make sense. But the church's purchase last week, of two downtown acres for $6.7 million, led a frustrated Mayor Frank Hibbard to question why the land wasn't being kept on the tax rolls. The church is exempt from paying taxes on its religious facilities.

Gruver, 53, said that conflict meant he had an upper hand with the city. "Hell, they're buying everything else out there," he said.

One problem: the church says it isn't interested. Spokeswoman Pat Harney said church representatives had never made an offer for the lot at 415 S Fort Harrison Ave.

Even if they had, Hibbard said, that's not reason enough for the city to make a deal.

"We're looking for strategic parcels," Hibbard said, not "trying to buy property to block the church. That's an impossible task. That's not our mission."

Gruver's father, Gene, opened the service station 65 years ago. Gruver took over the business when his father died in 2006.

But after state environmental inspectors found the station's oil tanks were faulty, a court ordered the tanks sealed. Gruver converted the station, earning $100,000 a month, into a small garage, earning $30,000 a year, and took on a second job as night-shift clerk at a Circle K.

As drivers' business passed, the station held the attention of a different kind of audience: city code enforcement. Officers returned often to the garage, its lot dotted with cars in disrepair, across the street from the picturesque Old Pinellas County Courthouse.

After Gruver removed his Sunoco gas-price sign, the city complained the steel pole needed to go, too. Gruver offered to replace it with a different sign, he said, but the city nixed his design.

He said he had neither the money nor the equipment to remove the pole and its underground wiring. The city responded by filing a lien on his property, accruing at $100 a day. His fees stand at more than $20,000.

Gruver has tried to sell the garage for three years, at an original asking price of $3 million. He said the few offers he got, including a carwash, were denied by zoning officials who targeted the land for downtown retail.

He said he's ready to sell to anyone but won't budge on his price, nearly four times the county's assessed market value. He can always fall back on the church, he said.

"They said they'd be in touch."

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or dharwell@sptimes.com.

Man trying to sell Clearwater property using Church of Scientology as bargaining chip 06/01/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 1, 2011 7:54pm]
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