CLEARWATER — Last June the City Council decided to postpone demolishing former Fire Station 45 on Franklin Street, which has been vacant since 2014, to explore adaptive reuse of the building instead. The hope was to attract a brewery or restaurant to the old fire house, helping the city’s ongoing downtown revitalization efforts.
On Jan. 7, the Community Redevelopment Agency invited private developers to pitch letters of interest on how they would transform the building if given the chance.
By the deadline of April 8, only one organization responded: the Church of Scientology.
Scientology offered to purchase and renovate the two-story building to transform it into a “multipurpose cultural center for the Clearwater community” to complement “the recent infusion of art into downtown,” spokesman Ben Shaw stated in his letter of interest.
The property sits to the east of the church’s seven-story, 300,000-square-foot Flag Building, where parishioners from across the world take courses and receive spiritual counseling. In an August land swap with the city, the church acquired the former fire marshal office on Franklin Street, adjacent to the old fire station. The city acquired a parking lot on Cleveland Street in exchange for the fire marshal office, seven parking spaces at S Garden Avenue and Court Street, and nine parking spaces on Watterson Avenue.
Shaw said Scientology would pay the operating costs and work “in coordination with a nonprofit to run the facility.” Shaw did not specify which nonprofit would run the facility, but Scientology supports several nonprofits it describes as “social betterment” organizations like The Way to Happiness Foundation, Criminon and the Citizens Commission on Human Rights.
But on Monday, the City Council essentially passed on Scientology’s proposal, making clear they want a commercial development, not a nonprofit use, on the site.
The city agreed hold on to the building and to again postpone demolition. Council members also agreed to wait on putting out another, more specific call to developers until August, when the city expects to receive results of a feasibility study on a proposed joint municipal center with Pinellas County.
The study is examining three downtown sites for a city-county facility all within walking distance of the former fire station, leaving the possibility the building could come into play.
But the lack of response from the private sector to the city’s call for letters of interest sparked debate between Mayor George Cretekos and council member Jay Polgalze.
“I keep hearing over and over again from the business community, especially the Downtown Partnership that that’s an ideal place to have a microbrewery put up,” Cretekos said. “Well you know, it’s time that these people who have these great ideas to come forward and here’s a facility that would work. As opposed to just talking, here’s something that you can do.”
Polglaze, who served as the nonprofit Partnership’s executive director from April 2016 until December 2018, when he was appointed to the Council to fill a vacancy, pushed back, pointing to investments and dedication of Partnership members “that still believe in downtown.”
“To call out individual groups within the downtown area partners and say they’re not doing their job, well, I think it’s a pretty long laundry list of potential problems why these people aren’t stepping forward,” Polglaze said. “There’s a lot of balls in the air so I think we need to continually encourage our partners, not demean them and call them out.”
In a later interview, Eric Sullivan, chair of the Partnership, said the group has met with city officials this year and expressed enthusiasm about wanting to offer assistance with events, brainstorm ideas for downtown and provide feedback from the businesses. Sullivan said he did not know the invitation for proposals on the old fire station was even out and that nobody from the city alerted the group.
“Never once did the city, the CRA or anybody else come to the CDP and say ‘hey we have this coming out, we could use your help,” Sullivan said. “They have a local board of volunteers in the community asking ‘how can we help?’ You didn’t ask for help and when you didn’t get the response you wanted, you came back and blamed us. It felt like an unfair remark from the mayor when we’ve asked, how can we help, how can we help, how can we help?”