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Prominent Scientologist buys up $16 million worth of downtown Clearwater property

[TRACEY MCMANUS/STAFF] A company controlled by developer and prominent Scientologist donor Moises Agami purchased almost all of the downtown real estate holdings of Terry and Anna Tsfatinos. Much of the purchase, including most of this south end of the 600 block of Cleveland Street, surrounds the nine-story, all-glass Atrium office tower in the background.
Published Nov. 23, 2018

CLEARWATER — A company run by Moises Agami, developer of the Skyview condo tower and part of a family that is one of the Church of Scientology's largest donors, recently purchased $16.4 million of property on and around Cleveland Street, putting him in control of a major swath of downtown.

Agami's company CBW Management bought nearly all the downtown holdings of longtime owners Terry and Anna Tsfatinos on Nov. 16, according to Pinellas County property records. Almost all of Agami's purchase borders the nine-story, all glass Atrium office tower at 601 Cleveland St., one of a half-dozen downtown properties Scientology leader David Miscavige bought last year for a retail project he later rescinded.

The portfolio includes a dozen storefronts that make up most of Cleveland Street's southern 600 block; storefronts at 425 and 519 Cleveland St.; a trio of storefronts at 514 Park St. directly to the west of the Atrium; and a parking lot and office building behind the Atrium on Park Street.

Agami has not informed city officials of his intentions for his new properties or whether the purchase is related to Miscavige's 2017 retail plan. Neither Agami nor Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw responded to multiple requests for comment.

But City Manager Bill Horne said the deal follows the pattern of property assemblage Miscavige began last year.

"All of this would fit in with the church's view on retail development if that's what they're planning to do," Horne said. "Clearly (Agami) is very much aligned with the church. If the church wants to do any part of a retail plan, then Agami is the way to do it."

In early 2017 Miscavige bought six downtown properties and two vacant blocks on nearby Myrtle Avenue totaling $27 million through limited liability companies, transactions first made public by the Tampa Bay Times. The Times revealed Miscavige hired consultants to recruit high-end retail to empty storefronts and was working to either own all property in the downtown core or have the cooperation of private landlords to implement an outdoor mall type development. Miscavige later told the City Council he would pay to renovate the facades of Cleveland Street storefronts and was planning an entertainment complex on the Myrtle Avenue strip with actor and Scientologist Tom Cruise.

Miscavige hinged this offer to revitalize the struggling downtown on his ability to purchase a 1.4-acre vacant parcel across from City Hall that he wanted to add to Scientology's international spiritual headquarters. He rescinded the redevelopment offer in April 2017 when the Council voted unanimously to buy the parcel for city use.

Horne said he has not spoken to Miscavige about the now-rescinded retail plan since before the April 2017 vote and is unclear of Scientology's intentions for the retail properties it acquired.

The Agami family, of Mexico, was given one of Scientology's highest honors in 2016 for their donations of $10 million, at least $7.5 million of that coming in the previous two years, according to Tony Ortega, a writer who runs an in-depth blog critical of Scientology.

Around 2012 Moises Agami began renovating the former AmSouth bank building across from the Capitol Theatre into the Skyview condo after a redevelopment project by fellow Scientologist Elias Jafif failed to take off. The Skyview's $3 million penthouse was built with a gym, theater, pool, flight simulator and car elevator, prompting speculation Cruise is the intended tenant.

Companies Agami controls also own almost all of the buildings on the north side of Cleveland Street's 400 block and two mostly vacant lots across from the Clearwater Main Library. He runs the companies with his brother, Cleman Agami, and Diego Jafif, the son of Elias Jafif, according to state corporate records.

Agami, 38, bought two vacant lots at the corner of Edgewater Drive and Sunset Point Road in May for $3.2 million, according to property records. Although plans have not yet been submitted, assistant director of planning and development Gina Clayton said Agami has had preliminary discussions with the city about building a condominium on the site.

The city is in the midst of multiple revitalization efforts to bring more retail, residential, and food and drink establishments into the downtown core. The roughly $50 million Imagine Clearwater plan is in design, a project aimed to awaken the waterfront with greenspace, gardens and a mixed use plaza to give businesses more reason to invest in downtown.

Community Redevelopment Agency Director Amanda Thompson this month launched an 18-month strategy to "change the perceptions held by the public and investors" about downtown. The strategy calls to expand public art, create signature events, improve parking, bring more foot traffic to complement future residential projects, lure more restaurants and bars, and other improvements.

Thompson said she would like to know Agami's long-term plan for his properties but that it doesn't change how she approaches all property owners in getting them "excited about investing." Thompson recently revamped an incentive program for property owners that provides up to $250,000 in reimbursements for projects like breweries and restaurants and invited all downtown stakeholders to apply.

"We try to treat every property owner the same," Thompson said. "We want you to know about the programs available, to encourage everyone to take advantage of them and we are focused on getting more investment in downtown to build more retail, commercial and residential."

Prequalifying for the incentive program ends on Nov. 30. So far, Thompson said, she has not received an application from Agami.

Senior researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Tracey McManus at tmcmanus@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

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