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Clearwater could buy land for its new City Hall site from Scientology

City staff will decide between 10 potential sites for a new City Hall building.

CLEARWATER ― The rented-out downtown office building is nice, but Clearwater government needs a forever home.

For more than a decade, the city discussed a potential joint-use government facility with Pinellas County. The governments this year spent nearly $75,000 studying three potential sites. But those talks ended in August when Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton and Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne decided in a meeting for the governments to go their separate ways.

“There was very little benefit of having a joint facility,” Burton said in an interview. “It didn't allow me to look at best operational needs of the county."

With the old City Hall building set to be included in the city’s $64 million Imagine Clearwater project, the city has rented space for key government offices in One Clearwater Tower at 600 Cleveland St. since January.

At Monday’s work session, city staff outlined nine potential sites for a new City Hall building. City Council member Hoyt Hamilton also threw a 10th site, the Clearwater Main Library, into the mix.

A Nov. 2019 map detailing the potential City Hall sites being eyed by Clearwater. Numbers 5, 6 and 8 are owned by businesses controlled Scientology parishioners or the Church itself. [City of Clearwater]

Two of those 10 new sites are actually old sites. A 2-acre plot owned by the county and the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, sitting directly north of the Church of Scientology’s Flag building, was one of the potential sites for the now-dead joint-use facility. Two city-owned plots on the west side of Myrtle Avenue between Pierce and Court streets were another. The city is still eyeing both.

The search is in its very early stages. The city hasn’t even asked the property owners that could become involved whether they’d be willing to part with their land yet, said Gina Clayton, the city’s director of planning and development.

But the city is moving fast. Clayton said she hopes staff, which is working with a $6.3 million budget, will be able to present conceptual sketches for three final sites to the City Council by February ― before the new City Council is elected in March.

For now, though, the number is 10.

Three of the potential sites include properties that were acquired by limited liability companies tied to the Church of Scientology over the past three years.

Related story: How Scientology doubled its downtown Clearwater footprint in 3 years

In October, the Tampa Bay Times reported that since January 2017, 32 companies tied to Scientology bought nearly 100 commercial properties in the center of downtown. Of the $103 million the companies spent, $99 million was paid in cash.

The majority of one of the sites, a 2 1/2-acre cluster of properties east of Myrtle Avenue between Park and Pierce streets, is owned by Zano Team 5 LLC, which is managed by a representative of Israeli citizen and Scientologist Itzhak Zano. (The city owns the northeast corner of this potential site.)

Companies controlled by Zano have spent $16.7 million acquiring 26 downtown commercial properties since 2017.

Another proposed site, a 2-acre property that holds a former Walgreens building at the corner of Cleveland Street and Myrtle Avenue, is owned by Downtown Clearwater Development LLC, a company controlled by Ray Cassano and Shahab Emrani, both real estate investors and members of Scientology. In October, Emrani was elected to the Downtown Development Board. Cassano is a current Development Board member

The potential City Hall site at the corner of Drew Street and East Avenue is part of a nearly three-block cluster of properties that the Church of Scientology bought in 2017 using a company called Myrtle Development LLC.

At the time, Scientology leader David Miscavige had developed a retail plan without city or public input that proposed building an entertainment complex with actor Tom Cruise on this stretch of Myrtle Avenue. The plan also proposed renovating Cleveland Street buildings and recruiting high-end retail to empty storefronts.

Related story: Church of Scientology ups bid for Clearwater Marine Aquarium land to $15 million

In March 2017 Miscavige told City Council members in private meetings that his redevelopment offer depended on the city stepping aside and allowing him to buy a 1.4-acre vacant lot that the church had also bid on. When the Council voted in April 2017 to buy the lot, Miscavige cut all communication with the city.

The string of properties around Myrtle Avenue sit mostly vacant today.

The other sites include several government and privately-owned parcels. A 1.6-acre parcel at Court Street and Gulf to Bay Boulevard is owned by the Idatix Corporation, a computer software outfit that owns DocuPhase. And a 4-acre plot near Gould Street and Missouri Avenue owned by Crum Properties II LLC sits directly south of the FrankCrum office complex.

The city itself owns all or parts of five of the sites: part of the Zano Team 5 site; the library; a plot on the northwest corner of Cleveland Street and Betty Lane; the plots on Myrtle Avenue between Pierce and Court Streets and part of a triangular plot bordered by Court Street and Chestnut Street.

Related story: Here are all of the Church of Scientology’s buildings in Pinellas County