CLEARWATER — For downtown Clearwater to thrive, city leaders and the Church of Scientology should work together and communicate better, a group of outside experts recommended Friday.
Of course, that might be easier said than done.
A panel of seven experts with the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit education and research group based in Washington, D.C., spent this week immersing themselves in Clearwater's downtown and meeting with all of its major players.
Clearwater paid the institute $125,000 to provide an assessment of its downtown. The institute's experts have recently done the same thing in St. Petersburg, Tampa and Pasco County.
The panelists, experts in various planning and development fields, presented their initial findings Friday to a crowd of about 100 people. They outlined a variety of suggestions for reviving the moribund district.
But they spotlighted a particular problem they said must be resolved — conflicts between the city's government and Scientology, downtown's largest landowner and taxpayer.
As the two biggest players downtown, the two sides must communicate and coordinate more, the panel said. As an example of what could be accomplished, they pointed to how the city and the church teamed up to lure a Starbucks to Cleveland Street, downtown's historic main drag. That happened in 2000.
"I am sensitive that there is a long history of hurt feelings," said panelist Brad Rogers, a community projects manager from Maryland. "But if these two entities cannot work together, no one will."
In that spirit, toward the end of Friday's meeting, Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos crossed the room and quietly introduced himself to longtime local Scientology official Ben Shaw, whom he had never met.
After the meeting, the mayor said city officials are open to more communication with the Church of Scientology, but that "the church needs to realize it is a two-way street."
"It could be better," Cretekos said of communication between the two sides.
"For whatever reason, some members of the church leadership feel that I don't want to work with the church," he said, adding that this is not true.
Scientology officials at Friday's meeting declined to comment.
Relations between the city and Scientology have evolved since the open hostility that existed when the sect first began buying up downtown property nearly 40 years ago.
But relations have been chilly over the past year or so. The city and church clashed over delays in opening the church's massive Flag Building, illegal tree cuttings and a massive tent that violated the city's sign code. And the two sides have been engaged in less-than-fruitful talks regarding a potential land swap.
The Urban Land Institute had many other recommendations. Among them:
• Build a free parking garage for downtown visitors with a trolley stop for beachgoers;
• Bring a waterfront restaurant to Coachman Park;
• Tear down the Harborview Center and expand Coachman Park, possibly with a skateboard park, interactive fountains, playground or amphitheater;
• Boost services for boaters on downtown's waterfront;
• Foster the development of more apartment complexes;
• Turn N Fort Harrison Avenue into a service-based retail corridor with businesses like a barber and laundry;
• Turn the Memorial Causeway Bridge into a work of art with lighting or decorations;
• Establish a festival square in the East Gateway area east of downtown;
• Expand uses of the Clearwater Main Library with a cafe, arts initiative or community center.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBrassfield.