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Scientologists and others step up the pressure as Clearwater nears vote on prized parcel

Should the Clearwater City Council vote this week to buy a prized piece of downtown land from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium? Or should it decline and allow the Church of Scientology to buy it? Opinions are strong on both sides as the Thursday vote approaches. The vacant parcel in question is between City Hall in the foreground and the multi-story building to the south, which is the church's Oak Cove retreat. [JIM DAMASKE | Times]

Should the Clearwater City Council vote this week to buy a prized piece of downtown land from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium? Or should it decline and allow the Church of Scientology to buy it? Opinions are strong on both sides as the Thursday vote approaches. The vacant parcel in question is between City Hall in the foreground and the multi-story building to the south, which is the church's Oak Cove retreat. [JIM DAMASKE | Times]

CLEARWATER — The $19 million Skyview condo being built downtown with a penthouse for actor Tom Cruise could be the last investment developer Cleman Agami ever makes in the city.

That will be one of the consequences if the City Council votes Thursday to buy a 1.4 acre vacant lot the Church of Scientology also is lobbying to purchase, Agami warned in an email to City Council member Bill Jonson.

By buying the Pierce Street property, the city would be sabotaging "over $60 million in hard cash investments" from the church, Agami, a Scientologist, wrote, referring to a proposal by church leader David Miscavige to bankroll a retail and entertainment overhaul in downtown, provided he gets control of the waterfront parcel.

"Today I had to confront the harsh reality of a City Council plagued by bigotry and bias and we want no part of it," Agami wrote on Friday. "Downtown needs that investment and the city doesn't have it to give it. The church does. Please don't stand in their way!"

His message is one of dozens that have flooded council members' email boxes in recent weeks as they prepare for Thursday's scheduled vote on whether to buy the downtown parcel from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. The lobbying has come from both sides — Scientologists who say the church can single-handedly revitalize the sleepy downtown, and other residents who fear its redevelopment offer is a cloaked scheme to control more land, excluding the general public.

"We all know (Scientology) cannot be trusted," Dianne Schuldt wrote in an email to council members. "Talk is easy, but they have not told the truth many times. Downtown development is your job. Things are looking better with your new plan for the waterfront. Do not give up the land that the aquarium is willing to sell to you."

In a work session Monday, city staff recommended the council buy the property to complement the city's 10-year, $55 million waterfront redevelopment plan. Staff said the land could be coupled with the City Hall property across the street and redeveloped into a hotel, condos and apartments, retail or other uses.

Community Redevelopment Agency Director Seth Taylor said the location overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway and close to the downtown core makes it a "signature parcel" ripe for public use.

"You could not ask for a better location than this particular piece of property," Taylor said. "This is an opportunity for our city to do some real city building. We have an opportunity to develop this parcel and create a new skyline for our downtown."

The property is adjacent to Scientology's Oak Cove religious retreat and across the street from its Fort Harrison Hotel and international spiritual headquarters. The church has been trying to buy it to build a playground, pool and other accommodations for parishioners, according to Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw.

The aquarium rejected the church's $15 million offer for the property earlier this month in favor of giving the city the chance to vote on buying it for $4.25 million on Thursday.

Miscavige has not released his retail and entertainment plan to the public, which proposes a total renovation of Cleveland Street's facade and use of consultants to recruit high-end retailers and businesses to fill vacant storefronts. However, he showed it to City Council members in individual meetings March 14, and to about 70 downtown stakeholders and parishioners at a private meeting last week.

In a statement Monday, Shaw said the plan fulfills a recommendation made in 2014 by the Urban Land Institute that the city and church work together to revitalize downtown. He confirmed the redevelopment plans "are dependent on the church being able to complete the Oak Cove retreat" by buying the adjacent aquarium property.

A council decision to buy the land "will ensure downtown remains a ghost town while it continues to blame the church for its own incompetence," Shaw said.

Natalie Nagengast, owner of the Saturday downtown farmers market, urged her vendors in an email last week to petition the council to partner with the church for the redevelopment. On Monday, Nagengast told the Downtown Development Board in an email she has pulled her proposal for an indoor market, explaining "hopefully there will be many more businesses downtown coming soon and we can revisit the project."

Nagengast, a member of the church, did not respond to a request for comment on whether her cancelation of the indoor market was a reaction to city's efforts to buy the aquarium property.

Vice Mayor Hoyt Hamilton said many of the Scientologists who have emailed him on the issue have promised to stop spending money downtown if the city buys the land.

But Hamilton said he is planning to vote for the purchase because the city can redevelop it to benefit all 110,000 Clearwater residents — not just Scientology parishioners. Mayor George Cretekos and council member Doreen Caudell also say they have decided to vote on buying the property, making it a majority of the five-member panel in favor of the action.

"If they're not going to spend their money downtown, they're only hurting their own parishioners," Hamilton said. "If the church doesn't want to invest in downtown, then put their property up for sale and let me bring in someone that wants to buy it who's not a parishioner."

Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

If you go

What: Clearwater City Council meeting

When: Thursday, 6 p.m.

Where: City Hall 112 S. Osceola Ave., third floor chambers

The council will vote on buying a 1.4 acre parcel of land owned by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium for $4.25 million. Public comment will be allowed before the vote.

Scientologists and others step up the pressure as Clearwater nears vote on prized parcel 04/18/17 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 19, 2017 12:20am]
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