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Scientology’s top donor pitches a museum for Clearwater City Hall

Trish Duggan, who has given hundreds of millions to the church, has talked to the city about turning the prime location into a glass art showcase.

Trish Duggan, currently the world’s top donor to Church of Scientology causes, first made her artistic mark on Tampa Bay with the 2018 opening of Imagine Museum in St. Petersburg.

Now, in search of a second location for her glass art collection, Duggan is eyeing the former Clearwater City Hall building, a key property in the $64 million downtown waterfront redevelopment project known as Imagine Clearwater.

Last month consultants delivered an analysis of the city’s three downtown waterfront properties, which included a scenario showing the old City Hall building transformed into a museum with an adjacent high-rise condo.

Duggan is the only museum operator who has met with the city’s architectural consultant for Imagine Clearwater. In a meeting Aug. 20, she discussed the museum concept with city staff at the office of Wannemacher Jensen Architects president Jason Jensen.

RELATED: ClearTakeover: How Scientology doubled its downtown Clearwater footprint in 3 years

Duggan did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Community Redevelopment Agency director Amanda Thompson confirmed Duggan is willing to pay for construction of a museum on the City Hall site and all operations.

Thompson cautioned that the discussions are preliminary. It will be up to the council to decide whether the City Hall property should even host a museum. And the lease or sale of the charter-protected City Hall property, as well as the former Harborview site, would ultimately have to be approved by voters in a referendum.

Consultants last month delivered an analysis of the city's three properties bordering the proposed downtown waterfront park. In one scenario, the city could build a condo on the former Harborview site, left, a museum and high-rise condo on the City Hall site, center, and a condo on the adjacent vacant lot, right. An existing condo, Water's Edge, sits between the Harborview and City Hall properties. [Courtesy of the City of Clearwater]

But the potential involvement of Scientology’s top donor in such a signature piece of city property has significant implications in Clearwater, both practical and symbolic.

Duggan’s discussions with the city overlap with a period of aggressive moves by the church to control all downtown real estate around its international spiritual headquarters.

They also come in the context of Scientology’s long and often controversial history in Clearwater. When the church arrived in 1975 under a false name, Scientology operatives deployed written plans to infiltrate city government, destroy perceived enemies and “establish area control.”

In October, the Tampa Bay Times reported that a string of companies tied to Scientology bought nearly 100 commercial properties within walking distance of the downtown waterfront over the past three years.

The push started in early 2017, as the council approved Imagine Clearwater’s conceptual plan to redevelop the waterfront as a strategy to revive the depressed downtown.

Scientology leader David Miscavige, meanwhile, developed his own plan to revitalize downtown without city or public input. In private meetings with the council in March 2017, he hinged his $55 million offer on the church’s ability to buy the 1.4 acre vacant lot across the street from City Hall, which the church and the city both bid on.

When the city ended up buying the vacant lot for the Imagine Clearwater project, Miscavige cut communication and the flood of purchases took off. Of the $103 million spent by companies buying properties over the next three years, $99 million was paid in cash.

Duggan took part in the wave of purchases. In July 2017, a limited liability company run by her Imagine Museum vice president bought a one-story office on North Garden Avenue for $1.4 million in cash.

Thompson, the city community redevelopment director, said the arts have been a critical element to the downtown revivals in Tampa and St. Petersburg and that Clearwater needs the same cultural boost to support retail and residential development. She said Duggan is a philanthropist with a world-class art collection willing to contribute to downtown’s revitalization who just happens to be a Scientologist.

“What do we do if our best partnership opportunity to bring something people will love is with a parishioner?” Thompson asked. “In my mind we set it up in a way that protects our interests, and that’s what we can do. The city can’t continue to subsidize every single thing, which is what is happening now.”

Duggan, who owns a $4 million mansion in Belleair Shore, is no ordinary parishioner. In 2016, her then-husband Bob Duggan, an entrepreneur who became a billionaire through pharmaceutical investments, told Forbes magazine he had donated $360 million to Scientology.

The couple divorced in 2017, according to court records. Trish Duggan is now hailed alone as the top Scientology benefactor in the world.

Related: Bob Duggan, missing from Scientology circles since his divorce, answered the phone. He had a lot to say.

In October, Miscavige honored her with “the crowning presentation” at the annual event of the International Association of Scientologists, the church’s fundraising arm, according to the church’s IMPACT magazine.

The publication did not specify how much Duggan gave to earn the honor. But a new donation level was created just for her: “Patron of Legend.”

In this photograph of Scientology's November 2019 edition of IMPACT magazine, Trish Duggan, center, is highlighted as a "Patron of Legend" for her vast donations to the church and its causes. Duggan and her ex-husband, Bob Duggan (not pictured), are Scientology's top individual donors of all time, having given at least $360 million as of 2016. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | TImes ]

City officials leading the Imagine Clearwater project emphasized Trish Duggan’s connection to Scientology is secondary to the opportunity to bring a world-class art collection to the park.

Assistant City Manager Michael Delk said any agreement between a museum operator and the city would have to be put out to bid, ensuring a competitive and public process. And the lease of the land to a museum or developer would require voter approval.

“The challenge is to find a tenant that is really worthy of having that kind of level of commitment long-term as a part of the park in terms of museum quality,” Delk said. “How many owners of world-class art are there out there to even attract? Ms. Duggan’s art collection I think almost unquestionably would be considered world-class art.”

Mayor George Cretekos and City Council member Bob Cundiff said they are open to a museum being built on the City Hall property. Council member Hoyt Hamilton said a museum has no place on the pristine waterfront that is better suited for retail and residential projects. Council members David Allbritton and Jay Polglaze did not respond to requests for comment.

Cretekos said he believes Scientology’s aggressive real estate acquisitions downtown are unrelated to Duggan’s interest in the City Hall building.

“I hesitate lumping those two together because in my mind we’re talking about two different things,” Cretekos said." I go to a museum not because of who owns the museum but because of what’s in the museum."

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