Thursday, August 16, 2018
News Roundup

Scientology's uniformed Sea Org staff clearly absent from downtown Clearwater

CLEARWATER — There's been a glaring shift in the everyday image that has defined the city's downtown for decades.

The small army of uniformed Scientologists who bustle all day between church buildings and file on and off the church's Flag buses is nowhere in sight.

While Sea Org staff members in their distinctive slacks and buttoned vests sometimes outnumber the general public, there were nearly none on Cleveland Street shortly after 9 Thursday morning.

After the city's recent purchase of a 1.4-acre vacant lot coveted by the church, Scientology this week enacted an apparent boycott of downtown, instructing Sea Org staff not to patronize shops on Cleveland Street, according to Community Redevelopment Agency director Seth Taylor.

"We started hearing from merchants earlier this week that they noticed a slow down in business, and they heard from Sea Org members they were instructed not to patronize Cleveland Street," Taylor said. "It seems to be the mom and pops that are suffering the most."

Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw said in a statement to the Times that "there is absolutely not any boycott of downtown by either staff or parishioners" and that the church has received queries in the past few months about whether staff could wear a different uniform or none at all.

Shaw said the constant complaints about the uniforms are "frustrating," and the church wants to avoid any cause for complaints.

"We wish to avoid doing anything that would upset anybody," Shaw said. "If you don't recognize staff, it is because they aren't in uniform when frequenting downtown.''

Lina Teixeira, owner of Studio 617 on Cleveland Street, said at Wednesday's Downtown Development Board meeting that merchants "are feeling under duress" as a result of the church's "boycott."

She said parishioners told her the church is reacting to recent complaints that uniformed Sea Org staffers' conspicuous presence discourages the general public from coming downtown.

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

"The fact remains we are the collateral damage," Teixeira said about the effect on local businesses.

Mayor George Cretekos said he is not aware of any city official asking church leaders to discontinue uniforms but said the impact the Sea Org's visual presence has on downtown's vibe has been discussed over the years.

Cretekos said visitors who are not familiar with the religious garb "think it is a military presence" in Clearwater. He said it would be unfortunate if the church has instructed parishioners to avoid downtown to make a statement to city officials.

"This is not a good way of building bridges,'' Cretekos said.

The City Council voted unanimously April 20 to buy a 1.4-acre vacant lot from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium for $4.25 million. The vote came weeks after the aquarium rejected Scientology leader David Miscavige's $15 million offer for the property in favor of selling to the city.

In private meetings with council members in March, Miscavige offered to bankroll a facade overhaul of Cleveland Street buildings, recruit high end retailers to empty storefronts, and launch an entertainment complex with a bowling alley and theater with Tom Cruise, on the condition the city step aside and allow him to buy the lot.

Miscavige said he wanted the lot, which borders the church's 13-story Oak Cove religious retreat, to build a swimming pool and playground for parishioners.

The city bought the land to pair it with the City Hall site across the street and redevelop the properties into a hotel, condo or other uses.

On April 24, the church delivered a formal complaint and 300 pages of opposition research criticizing the aquarium's financial and ethical practices to state officials and the Pinellas County Commission. The complaint came one day before the county gave initial approval to the aquarium's request for $26 million of tourist tax dollars.

"The timing of this speaks for itself, and it's pretty evident that if, in fact, they have been instructed not to patronize downtown businesses, this would be a response to the property purchase," Taylor said. "I'd like to put a message out saying downtown is open for everyone. Speaking on behalf of the business community, I know they would say everyone is welcome to shop and patronize downtown."

Katherine Kondrotas, a Scientology parishioner and owner of Endless Treasures on Cleveland Street, said the church would never instruct staff to avoid downtown in order to hurt businesses. It was a response, she said, to unfair complaints about the visual impact of Sea Org uniforms.

"I feel sometimes (the church) is used as an excuse of why the city isn't doing well, when the city has issues," Kondrotas said. "It's a finger pointing."

Tony's Pizza owner Tony Starova said he had a busy lunch crowd Thursday but it did not include any of the typical uniformed Sea Org customers.

He said Scientologists are welcome downtown, and at the same time, they should support the businesses like the general public does.

"(Uniformed Scientologists) are only like 5 or 6 percent of normal business at lunch," Starova said. "It's not that they are impactful enough to close my business. There might be other businesses totally dependent on the church, and I feel sorry for them."

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

 
Comments
Pedestrian fatally struck by car in Tampa

Pedestrian fatally struck by car in Tampa

A pedestrian was killed in Tampa late Wednesday night.According to police, 47-year-old Melvin Allen was walking westbound on the sidewalk in the 1300 block of E Hillsborough Avenue around 11 p.m.. when he stepped onto the road, police say.He was stru...
Updated: 11 minutes ago
Sports Day Tampa Bay podcast: Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota share practice field

Sports Day Tampa Bay podcast: Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota share practice field

The Bucs are in Tennessee for joint practices with the Titans, so Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota — drafted first and second overall in 2015 — are sharing the same practice field.What do they think of each other? Also, how did the Bucs ...
Updated: 23 minutes ago
In Republican race for Pinellas County Commission seat, Rep. Kathleen Peters outpacing field

In Republican race for Pinellas County Commission seat, Rep. Kathleen Peters outpacing field

As the Aug. 28 primary election approaches, three Republicans are battling to represent a Pinellas County Commission district that hasn’t witnessed a competitive contest for more than 15 years.State Reps. Larry Ahern of Seminole and Kathleen Peters o...
Updated: 28 minutes ago
Florida girl denied school lunch because she was 15 cents short, mother says

Florida girl denied school lunch because she was 15 cents short, mother says

A sophomore at University High School in Volusia County was denied lunch on her first day of school Tuesday because she owed 15 cents, according to WKMG in Orlando.The girl’s mother, Kimberly Aiken, told WKMG a cashier in the school’s lunchroom threw...
Updated: 1 hour ago
‘It is taking people out’: More than 70 people overdose on K2 in a single day in New Haven

‘It is taking people out’: More than 70 people overdose on K2 in a single day in New Haven

Hour after hour, people kept dropping. Sirens blared throughout the afternoon. There were so many overdoses - people passed out, vomiting, convulsing - that emergency workers could hardly sprint fast enough to keep up."Even while we were trying to re...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Stretch of heat and sunshine to continue in Tampa Bay through weekend

Stretch of heat and sunshine to continue in Tampa Bay through weekend

A ridge of high pressure that has settled in the western Atlantic will provide Tampa Bay with drier, more stable weather for the next few days, according to the National Weather Service.Clear skies and lots of sunshine will characterize the morning w...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Missing child alert issued for endangered Pasco County children

Missing child alert issued for endangered Pasco County children

A Florida Missing Child Alert has been issued for three Dade City children who went missing Wednesday night.They may be in the company of Christopher Christy Sr., 29, and Shannon Adams, 24, according to authorities. The children, who range in age fro...
Updated: 3 hours ago
The Daystarter: Can Bernie Sanders swing the governor’s race?; meet the stand your ground shooter’s legal team; Rays’ bats wake up against Yankees

The Daystarter: Can Bernie Sanders swing the governor’s race?; meet the stand your ground shooter’s legal team; Rays’ bats wake up against Yankees

Catching you up on overnight happenings, and what to know today.• Get ready for another overcast, wet and hot day. The forecast calls for partly cloudy skies with a 40 percent chance of rain, according to the National Weather Service. The highest ch...
Updated: 4 hours ago
Deveron Gibbons’ promise of 20 jobs in jeopardy as development plans languish

Deveron Gibbons’ promise of 20 jobs in jeopardy as development plans languish

ST. PETERSBURG — Former mayoral candidate Deveron Gibbons’ plans to develop two acres across the street from Tangerine Plaza — where two supermarkets failed — could be in trouble. His vision for the property at 2100 18th Ave....
Updated: 4 hours ago
Romano: Con artist or Florida politician? You decide

Romano: Con artist or Florida politician? You decide

Decorum matters, and so the attorney’s language was appropriately measured.In seeking to have a constitutional amendment thrown off the ballot, a motion filed in Leon County used words such as "misleading’’ and "ambiguity’’ and "wordsmithing.’’That’s...
Updated: 4 hours ago