Friday, September 21, 2018
News Roundup

Clearwater City Council votes 5-0 to buy downtown parcel coveted by the Church of Scientology

CLEARWATER — The City Council on Thursday voted unanimously to buy a vacant but high-profile downtown lot from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, intercepting a crucial piece of land the Church of Scientology said it needed for its campus.

A packed auditorium at City Hall greeted the 5-0 decision with applause.

Scientology leader David Miscavige had offered to bankroll a multi-million dollar revitalization of downtown if the city stepped aside and allowed the church to buy the lot, which borders its 13-story Oak Cove religious retreat. He pitched the idea last week to a select group of downtown stakeholders with help from Scientology celebrities like John Travolta, and was willing to pay more than three times what the city was offering.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Church of Scientology ups bid for Clearwater Marine Aquarium land to $15 million

EDITORIAL: Clearwater City Council should stand up to Church of Scientology

But council members said the 1.4-acre property at the corner of Pierce Street and Osceola Avenue is needed for the city's 10-year, $55 million overhaul of the waterfront and Coachman Park. City staff said it could be coupled with the City Hall site across the street and redeveloped into a hotel, condos and apartments, retail or other uses.

"Will the city be able to guide the use of that property for the good of all of Clearwater? To me that's the most critical question, to which my answer would be yes," City Council member Bob Cundiff said.

About 200 people gathered in City Hall for the discussion. While roughly 25 people lined up to speak in favor of the city buying the land, only four spoke against the purchase.

"I feel the city is slowly losing control of the city's destiny, and it's going to the Church of Scientology," resident Bob Holsinger said. "I feel this issue tonight is also a symbolic issue."

The city will pay $4.25 million for the property and allow the aquarium to continue using the space for parking while it renovates its facility across the Intracoastal on Island Estates. That project could take two years.

The church wanted the land to build a pool, playground and other accommodations for parishioners staying at the Oak Cove.

Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw has made clear that Miscavige's proposed retail development hinged on the church's ability to buy the aquarium land. In private meetings with City Council members last month, Miscavige described funding a facade overhaul for Cleveland Street, recruiting high-end retailers to empty storefronts, and building an entertainment complex on Myrtle Avenue with actor Tom Cruise.

Shaw declined to comment Thursday on the church's next steps. The council's vote raises a number of questions, including: What will Scientology do with the $26 million in downtown real estate, including the landmark Atrium office tower, it has purchased since January in anticipation of its retail plan? And will its retail proposal go away entirely or evolve?

In a letter to the Tampa Bay Times on Monday, Shaw blasted the city as "arrogant" for wanting to keep the aquarium land out of the church's hands, calling it "manifest obstruction" and a statement by City Hall that Scientologists are second-class citizens.

At the time, the city's position was becoming clear even before the official vote, with three of the five council members saying they supported buying the land.

"Whose votes do not count? Whose money does not count?" Shaw asked. "The bigotry against Scientologists is barefaced."

In denying the church the land it wanted, the council "apparently believes (Scientologists) are not deserving of a swimming pool and other amenities for their children," Shaw wrote.

City residents who attended Thursday night's meeting spoke about the overwhelming presence Scientology has downtown and its effect on economic development since the church arrived in 1975.

"I recognize that the Scientologists are a part of this community," said resident April Robinson. "The difference is that we have no issue with them being a part of our community, using and enjoying our mutually beneficial amenities. They are the ones that want us out."

Resident Martin Hughes, however, said it was a mistake to throw away the church's offer to revitalize downtown and questioned the motives of the city in buying the land.

"We have an economic entity whose willingness to be a partner in and with our great city is being questioned, I suspect, in part due to a difference in their world view and perceived dearth of development disclosure," Hughes said.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium CEO David Yates has said the nonprofit has always been committed to selling to the city because the two are partners in the community.

"I think everybody's hope and desire is the city can move ahead with a strong master plan to really revitalize downtown," Yates said. "It's an amazing area, beautiful area, so I think this is a good first step."

Council member Bill Jonson described the fierce opinions that have come in over the last several weeks on this issue, and held up a thick binder of comments he's received from both sides.

Mayor George Cretekos said the purchase of the land ties into the future of the waterfront and the fate of the city's 10-year waterfront redevelopment plan. Referencing the city's upbeat motto, he said religion doesn't play a factor — and shouldn't going forward.

"All of us, whether we are Scientologists, whether we are Presbyterian, Methodist, Jewish, Muslim, or in my case, Greek Orthodox, we will be able to celebrate a Clearwater that truly is 'Bright and Beautiful Bay to the Beach.'"

Times Staff Writer Laura C. Morel contributed to this report. Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

     
             
Comments
Football: Clearwater 34, Mitchell 7

Football: Clearwater 34, Mitchell 7

TRINITY — What at first looked like a defensive stalemate between Clearwater and Mitchell quickly turned into a rout.Clearwater had revenge on its mind Friday night after a 45-28 loss to Mitchell last year during the the regular seaso...
Updated: 1 hour ago

Football: Tampa Bay Tech 28, Hillsborough 27

TAMPA — The decision was made as soon as Hillsborough got the ball back. Trailing by a touchdown with just over four minutes remaining against Tampa Bay Tech, the Terriers had the ball on their own 6-yard line.They hadn't been able to move the ...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Football: Largo 35, Countryside 0

Football: Largo 35, Countryside 0

LARGO — The offense was relentless and merciless Friday night, but that has been the case a lot recently. Largo is scoring points in bunches and getting contributions from everyone. Add in a defense that has been smothering, as well as a special team...
Updated: 1 hour ago

Football: Sickles 7, Freedom 3

TAMPA — Sickles needed a goal-line stand late in the fourth quarter to escape Freedom 7-3 on Homecoming and remain in the hunt for a Class 7A, District 8 title.Gryphons coach Patrick Murphy knew that facing the Patriots would be a battle. Freedom (1-...
Updated: 1 hour ago

Football: Armwood 24, Jefferson 14

SEFFNER — Armwood is becoming accustomed to winning close games.The Hawks fended off visiting Jefferson 24-14 in a defensive battle that featured a plethora of holding penalties in the second half.Armwood (3-1) earned two rushing touchdowns from juni...
Updated: 1 hour ago

Football: Plant 44, Gaither 34

TAMPA — Seventy-eight points. Eight hundred and 40 yards in total offense. Five players surpassing the century mark in yardage.When the game was over Friday, Plant had the edge in every category — including the scoreboard as the Panthers (3-1) opened...
Updated: 1 hour ago

Football: Robinson 28, Blake 25

TAMPA — Nevermind that Blake scored a go-ahead touchdown with 87 seconds left in the game.Forgive him, but part of Robinson junior Lateef Al-Shaa’ir was hoping it would happen just so it would set up a comeback.And it did.With 24 seconds left in the ...
Updated: 2 hours ago

Football: St. Petersburg 23, Gibbs 6

ST. PETERSBURG — St. Petersburg’s Aumhryaun Brown’s two touchdowns helped overcome the ejection of quarterback Tonio Shavers as the Green Devils cruised to a 23-6 win against Gibbs on Friday.As time expired during the first half, with the Green Devil...
Updated: 2 hours ago

Football: Plant City 24, East Bay 7

GIBSONTON — Plant City’s high-powered passing game gets most of the attention. But the Raiders’ defense is just as responsible for the team’s unbeaten start.In Plant City’s 24-7 road victory against East Bay in Class 7A, District 9 on Friday, the def...
Updated: 2 hours ago

Football: Clearwater Central Catholic 38, Northeast 17

ST. PETERSBURG — Championship caliber teams don’t cut themselves any slack.Just ask senior quarterback Rory Hicks, a tough grader moments after visiting Clearwater Central Catholic rolled out its textbook offensive precision to subdue Northeast, 38-1...
Updated: 2 hours ago