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Clearwater downtown blueprint ignores Church of Scientology, the 'elephant in the room'

The Flag Building proclaims the Church of Scientology’s presence in Clearwater. “We’re trying to draw people downtown regardless of the elephant in the room,” said Hoyt Hamilton.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times (2013)

The Flag Building proclaims the Church of Scientology’s presence in Clearwater. “We’re trying to draw people downtown regardless of the elephant in the room,” said Hoyt Hamilton.

CLEARWATER — The latest downtown revitalization plan unveiled this week calls for walkable green spaces and a bustling town square peppered with outdoor dining and retail shops to fill the vacant storefronts.

But the 146-page blueprint the city paid consultants nearly $400,000 to write makes no mention of the Church of Scientology's future implications on downtown revival as the largest property owner and an international institution with a $917 million economic impact locally, according to one study.

Since first arriving in Clearwater in 1975, the Church of Scientology has accumulated $250 million in real estate, occupying whole blocks of downtown and building its worldwide spiritual headquarters steps from City Hall.

Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw wrote in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times the church "has no further plans to expand our campus downtown" but acknowledged a $4.25 million offer the church made last year to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium for a vacant, grassy lot off Osceola Avenue.

Still, none of the five City Council members said they believe Scientology's substantial presence is a relevant factor in strategizing for revitalization or recruiting private investment. If the city can reshape downtown's waterfront into a viable attraction, they say, the business community will follow.

"We're trying to draw people downtown regardless of the elephant in the room," said council member Hoyt Hamilton. "If you put the right project down there, people are going to come no matter what."

• • •

There is only a single sentence in the Imagine Clearwater master plan about Scientology's influence on downtown.

In a section about the lack of retail, dining and events, consultants write: "The significant presence of the Church of Scientology members spending time downtown contributes to a sense of alienation among non-members."

HR&A Advisors partner Cary Hirschstein said the city hired his firm to design a road map for bringing activity and visitors to the waterfront where there is currently an under-used park and parking lots.

Because much of the bluff area is owned by the city, Hirschstein said the government has control over the image of the waterfront regardless of Scientology's pursuit of more real estate.

Members of the church pitched ideas for enhancing downtown during town hall forums last year alongside non-members, and consultants met privately with church leaders. Hirschstein said he heard parishioners wanting the same vibrancy and activity as the rest of the public, making a conversation about a potential conflict of missions unnecessary.

"Yes it's easy to find points where people may differ, but when you really look at the vast majority of the community's plan … the predominant idea of establishing this great civic center for downtown is something I found everybody on board with," Hirschstein said.

Church officials agreed, stating to the Times they "want all of downtown to be developed to the benefit of the entire community. ... We are certain that with what we bring to the table in terms of economic impact and active participation, that the result will be a beautiful, thriving downtown for everyone."

But Mayor George Cretekos acknowledged he has no idea how much more the church intends to grow or which parcels may end up being bought by Scientology instead of a restaurant or business.

In 10 years as an elected official, he's had only two meetings with Scientology leader David Miscavige.

"I don't know what the church wants," Cretekos said. "We keep hearing they want to help us bring in businesses.… The church was instrumental in bringing in Starbucks. But what else has the church brought in? They haven't brought in other retail businesses."

In 2014, Urban Land Institute consultants hired to write a $125,000 analysis of downtown revival said city leaders and the Church of Scientology must communicate better for the district to thrive.

ULI senior vice president Tom Eitler told the Times on Thursday that beyond pleasant interactions, that means the city needs solid data about the church's long-term strategy.

But the more the church's role is mentioned in a city planning document, Eitler said "the more you scare off investors, that's the issue."

"If the Church of Scientology was really interested in helping downtown, they'd say 'here is our downtown expansion plan, let's get that into the consultants' plan,' " Eitler said. "There's no sharing at all. They come to the meetings and pretend they are participating."

• • •

Clayton Irwin said not many in the business community are willing to take the risk he did by opening The Lucky Anchor Irish pub on Cleveland Street last month.

He was encouraged by the promise downtown is showing — the new Grindhouse coffee shop that opened last year, the incoming Clear Sky restaurant, and the live music and lounge furniture the city installed in the empty Station Square Park.

But Irwin said he believes business owners are reluctant to take over vacant storefronts because of Scientology's overwhelming presence. Some may disagree with the controversial religion, but others unfazed by the ideology see there being no room for anybody who is not in uniform, Irwin said.

"I don't think the church is bad, but nobody is sure what's going to happen," said Irwin, adding that a church member delivered a plate of cookies to his pub when it opened. "It looks like Flint, Mich., here with everything just closed up except the church buildings."

There is also a reluctance to speak publicly about the church. Some business owners, city employees and downtown observers interviewed by the Times would not talk on the record about Scientology's impact on downtown's future.

But in his statement, Shaw said the church "supports and encourages private investment downtown."

City Manager Bill Horne said success of events like the weekly Pierce Street farmers market, Blast Friday block parties and concerts in Coachman Park prove people will come downtown when there is a reason to visit.

The problem is how to establish a thriving retail district to draw foot traffic on a consistent basis.

He said this latest master plan could be that catalyst. The lush green space, gardens, walking and biking trails, and an attractive plaza bordering the waterfront envisioned in the plan could be the centerpiece that draws visitors regardless of the church's presence.

And when there is foot traffic, he said, businesses will see an opportunity.

"We are going to revitalize our downtown in spite of the public perception of the presence of the Church of Scientology," Horne said. "I believe the community has the wherewithal for this to be successful."

Contact Tracey McManus at tmcmanus@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

Clearwater downtown blueprint ignores Church of Scientology, the 'elephant in the room' 02/05/17 [Last modified: Sunday, February 5, 2017 4:15pm]
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