Does the Church of Scientology just want downtown Clearwater all to itself?
That's the question people are asking now that Scientology, the biggest property owner downtown, is working behind the scenes to fight the Clearwater Marine Aquarium's plans to move there.
The campaign has become increasingly aggressive. The church has brought in an accountant, an economist and an investigative reporter to dig into the nonprofit aquarium's financial projections and its animal-care history, according to aquarium supporters.
Scientology, which calls Clearwater its worldwide spiritual headquarters, has also been lobbying public officials who will decide whether the aquarium receives any tourist tax dollars.
The small aquarium — the home of Winter, the movie-star dolphin with a prosthetic tail — hopes to raise enough money to build a $68 million facility on the downtown waterfront because it has outgrown its current quarters near Clearwater Beach.
Clearwater's elected leaders unanimously support this idea, hoping a popular aquarium would draw tourists to the city's moribund downtown. In a referendum, voters agreed to let the aquarium relocate to the current site of City Hall.
However, that would put a major attraction and possibly a million tourists a year in the midst of Scientology's signature properties — the Fort Harrison Hotel, the massive Flag Building and the Oak Cove high-rise.
"The only thing the Church of Scientology cares about in Clearwater is keeping pesky non-Scientologists away from its buildings," said Mike Rinder, a former high-level Scientology executive who now criticizes church leadership. "The church wants to make sure that downtown Clearwater continues to be the nice, quiet, no-one-around-to-bother-us town that it has become."
In public, the church is not opposing the aquarium's plans.
"We're not pro- or anti- the aquarium," Scientology spokeswoman Pat Harney wrote to Clearwater officials. "We just have questions and are pointing out facts."
Behind the scenes, it's a different story.
"The message was pretty clear to me. They didn't want an aquarium downtown," said County Commissioner Charlie Justice, who recently received a visit from Scientology officials.
Other commissioners who got visits were left with the same impression. They say church representatives argued that an aquarium isn't the best use for the City Hall site.
"I kept asking, "Why are you so against the aquarium?' " recalled Commissioner Karen Seel. "I never got what I considered to be a good answer. After the meeting I thought and thought, and it's because they want the rest of downtown for expansion. I think that's their purpose."
Vote was revealing
County commissioners hold the purse strings. The aquarium hopes to raise $16 million in private donations. But it's also seeking tourist or "bed tax" dollars, from hotel stays, which would be a significant source of funding.
The aquarium will be one of several attractions seeking a share of nearly $7 million in annual tourist tax revenue that will be freed up this year when the county pays off its debt on Tropicana Field.
Former Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard says he's outraged that the church is working against the plan after residents voted to permit the aquarium to lease the City Hall property.
"If you're trying to show goodwill, I don't think you show it by trying to undermine something that citizens supported and that diversifies the downtown," said Hibbard, who is on the aquarium's board but said he wasn't speaking for the aquarium.
"The evidence is clearly pointing to the fact that they want the downtown core to themselves."
Publicly, the church took no position before Clearwater's November 2013 referendum.
However, the vote totals gave aquarium supporters an idea of where the church really stood. According to election records, the precinct with by far the most votes against the aquarium was the one that includes the Scientology-owned Hacienda Gardens residential compound on Saturn Avenue, which houses hundreds of church staffers.
Church wants retail downtown
What does the Church of Scientology say?
Church officials declined to comment to the Tampa Bay Times. But they've told county commissioners the church believes downtown is more suitable for retail development. They raised concerns about traffic.
The church has also commissioned studies that tout its own economic impact. It pays more than $2 million per year in property and hotel bed taxes. Also, businesses owned by Scientologists employ hundreds of non-Scientologists, the church points out.
Since arriving in Clearwater in 1975, the church has grown into a dominating presence downtown, with nearly 70 properties serving as a worldwide center for Scientology counseling.
Today, the church owns nearly $184 million worth of property in Clearwater — 76 percent of which is tax-exempt because it's used for religious purposes, according to county records. The church also owns swaths of undeveloped land.
Property may play into the dispute between the church and the aquarium.
In December 2012, quietly preparing for a move, the aquarium spent $2 million to buy a vacant lot between City Hall and Scientology's 13-story Oak Cove high-rise.
The aquarium has talked of possibly putting a parking garage or hotel on that lot, next to where a new aquarium would go.
If that happened, tourists going to see the dolphins Winter and Hope could be parking right across the street from the cabanas at the rear of the Fort Harrison Hotel property where Scientologist Lisa McPherson spent the last 17 days of her life in the church's care before her controversial death in 1995.
In September 2013, the church spent $3 million to scoop up an acre that the aquarium was eyeing for a parking garage.
According to aquarium supporters, the aquarium recently got a visit from a Scientology-employed reporter who said the church had an accountant and an economist reviewing the nonprofit's IRS filings and its feasibility study for its proposed facility.
For its part, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium says it isn't looking for a fight with Scientology.
"We respect their First Amendment rights to say whatever they want," said aquarium CEO David Yates. "We're simply trying to do what's best for our mission and the community."
There's no guarantee the aquarium will move downtown anyway, because it faces fundraising challenges.
In addition to talking to county commissioners, Scientology officials have reached out to members of Pinellas' Tourist Development Council, who recommend how bed tax money should be spent.
Madeira Beach Mayor Travis Palladeno, a member of the council, met with Scientology staffers in September.
"I think they're concerned that maybe some of the numbers being shown from the aquarium weren't what they thought it should be to make that investment with bed tax dollars," Palladeno said.
Meanwhile, Clearwater officials don't appreciate the church's lobbying.
"We are trying to redevelop downtown for everybody, not just for the Church of Scientology," said Mayor George Cretekos.
Church officials tell Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne they want high-end retail to serve affluent parishioners.
"Everybody is trying to determine what the church's intentions are, and people come to the conclusion that it's to own the downtown — to increase their property holdings and turn downtown into Scientology-ville," Horne said. "The question is, is that really what they're attempting to do?"