CLEARWATER — One afternoon in late October, City Manager Bill Horne was invited to the Fort Harrison Hotel where Church of Scientology leader David Miscavige shared details about the church's long-rumored retail strategy.
Until that meeting, elected officials and downtown followers knew Scientology was working on some kind of general business plan, but the church had kept the specifics and overall concept secret.
Miscavige showed Horne and Community Redevelopment Agency director Seth Taylor renderings of a facade overhaul for Cleveland Street and they later learned the church's plan to manage its own retail district through controlling the downtown core, whether by buying property outright or having its parishioners or other willing players as landlords.
Horne said he discussed with City Council members the fact Scientology was working on a general retail plan but didn't report specific details of his October meeting because it was "conceptual."
"It wasn't anything very definitive other than conceptual," Horne said. "I shared with the council that he was going to go after putting together some kind of retail recruitment plan, so I couldn't give them much more specifics than that. There weren't takeaways I could show them."
Since that meeting in October, the church has begun implementation by buying more than $26 million of prime downtown real estate. Although they learned the extent of the church's plan from a Tampa Bay Times article Monday, four of the five City Council members said they are unconcerned about not getting a formal report from the city manager.
"People try to amass property for redevelopment and they don't like the details to be let out," Mayor George Cretekos said. "If this weren't the Church of Scientology, or if this weren't Mr. Miscavige, it may not be a story. … I don't know that it's a lack of transparency that some people are suggesting or thinking. I think it's just a matter of trying to put a plan together that would work, and the details are vague at the present time."
Scientology's plan does not require approval from elected officials or voters, and the church has already hired consultants to help recruit businesses and architects to design a facade renovation of Cleveland Street for when they control all the property.
Only City Council member Doreen Caudell said she is concerned she didn't get a formal briefing of Scientology's retail plan from Horne before learning about it through the Times.
Caudell said she urges Scientology to make a public presentation at the March 16 City Council meeting, but said she will not ask Miscavige herself because "that role belongs to the city manager, especially since he has been apprised of Scientolgy's retail plan since October."
Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw did not respond to an email or phone call for comment on the plan or a request by the Times to interview Miscavige.
City Council member Hoyt Hamilton said despite Scientology's aggressive acquisition of property, he is still skeptical of the concept's future because Miscavige did not provide Horne or Taylor with copies of the renderings.
"Sometimes when you're not willing to let it out of the room, it may not even be true," Hamilton said. "(Horne) was probably like 'well, if I can't show them something, I don't want to describe something that's not true.' That doesn't really concern me."
Vice Mayor Bill Jonson said although he didn't know the extent of Scientology's intentions until the Times story, he still doesn't know the full scope of it and did not expect a report from Horne.
City Council member Bob Cundiff agreed, saying "plans are plans," and it would not have made a difference if Horne shared what he knew or not.
"You can't stop them from buying land," Cundiff said. "Like anybody else they have the freedom to buy what they want to buy. Their interest right now seems to be developing businesses in downtown. …You have to see if they actually do that."
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.