CLEARWATER — A pitch by a local advocate trying to interest City Hall in a fledgling transit technology took an atypical turn this month when one City Council member received what appeared to be a special briefing at the Church of Scientology's Fort Harrison Hotel.
Four of the council members met individually on May 5 with SkyTran promoter Tom Nocera at City Hall, the standard venue for information meetings.
However, newly elected council member Bob Cundiff sat in on a private meeting May 4 held by Nocera at the Fort Harrison, along with representatives from the Florida Department of Transportation, the Pinellas County Metropolitan Planning Organization, the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce, congressional candidate Mark Bircher, and others.
"I think it was unusual," said council member Hoyt Hamilton. "I asked the question of myself: 'Why was Mr. Cundiff invited to the Fort Harrison and why was no (other elected official) at the presentation?' It's a reasonable question. I don't know why I only got 30 minutes, and Mr. Cundiff got, what, two hours?"
Cundiff said he used the meeting at the Fort Harrison as his one-on-one for the SkyTran session because he had scheduling conflicts the next day when all other council members were meeting individually with Nocera at City Hall.
Nocera said he wanted a city representative at this specific meeting and asked Cundiff because he had advocated for SkyTran during his election campaign.
Nocera, who pushed Cundiff to run in the March 15 election, said he briefed the church's public affairs office on SkyTran in February as he continues to search for the best routes for the proposed elevated transit system. When he needed a suitable conference area for the May 4 meeting and approached church representatives, Nocera said they offered the Fort Harrison.
"For Clearwater to advance, you have to bring in everybody," said Nocera, who also made a 30-minute presentation for the public at the May 6 City Council meeting.
Although Cundiff, a member of Lakeside Community Chapel and former Baptist preacher, said he didn't over-think the venue beforehand, the Fort Harrison meeting marks a distinct departure from the historically tense relationship between city officials and the church.
That relationship has been marked by a decades-long territory struggle over real estate as the church, the biggest property owner downtown, continues to expand its worldwide spiritual headquarters while the city tries to revitalize downtown business and retail.
After the Clearwater Marine Aquarium publicly identified a 1-acre parcel on Drew Street for a parking garage, Scientology snapped it up — adding one more roadblock that prevented the aquarium from relocating into downtown last year. In addition, the church ran up $435,000 in fines for construction delays on its massive Flag Building, which opened in 2013, and has clashed with the city over illegal tree cuttings and code violations.
City Manager Bill Horne said city related meetings at the church are infrequent, and he had a rare sitdown with Scientology leader David Miscavige in 2014.
"We have some anxiety over an expanding campus," Horne said, adding the relationship between the city and Scientology now is "functional and very cordial."
"We're trying to revitalize our downtown," he said. "That requires, in our view, more private sector investment in the business side of the downtown, and we'd like to have business on the tax rolls as much as possible."
When Urban Land Institute consultants said the city and church must improve communication to revitalize downtown in 2014, Vice Mayor Bill Jonson said he took their advice. He's had occasional coffee meetings at the Fort Harrison, most recently in March with Lisa Mansell, community affairs director of the Church of Scientology.
"After the ULI report came out, I've been trying to (do) more listening to all segments of the downtown area," Jonson said.
Cundiff said he is interested in working with all citizens and organizations in the community, including the Church of Scientology. He also said he doesn't believe his meeting being more in-depth and longer than what his colleagues received was improper, but as a newly elected official, he's still learning.
"For me it was no big deal, although I'm new on what constitutes a one-on-one," he said. "I don't know what usual is. If it was a mistake, it was an honest one."
Church spokeswoman Pat Harney did not respond to a request for comment.
Nocera is pushing SkyTran as a traffic solution to connect downtown to the beach and the broader Tampa Bay area, and he is trying to persuade the City Council to pass a resolution in support of the technology before he begins fundraising.
SkyTran is a high-speed, elevated transportation system that runs "jet-like" cars on magnetic levitation technology. The system is not fully functioning anywhere in the world, but SkyTran chairman Jerry Sanders said a test system is running in Israel and the technology is under development in several European cities.
According to Sanders, the system can improve transit within urban areas and act as a long-distance connector between cities. Speeds can reach up to 150 mph, can carry 11,500 riders per line per hour, and at $13 million a mile, costs about a tenth of light rail, he said.
Sanders said Nocera is not a paid employee or under contract, but he would love to see the technology in Florida.
"When Gov. Scott first rejected Obama's money for high-speed rail, we approached the governor and offered SkyTran instead," he said. "It's uniquely suited for floods, emergencies and the by and large flat terrain."
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.