CLEARWATER — Church of Scientology leader David Miscavige met with three top city officials this month, the first face-to-face interaction between city government and downtown’s largest property owner in almost three years.
Since Miscavige last met with city officials in early 2017, the church has moved aggressively to control downtown real estate around its international spiritual headquarters.
In October the Tampa Bay Times reported that, since January 2017, limited liability companies tied to Scientology bought about 100 commercial properties in the center of downtown. Of the $103 million spent by the companies, $99 million was paid in cash.
But during their two-hour meeting, no one asked Scientology’s leader about the church’s plans for the acquisitions or why the deluge of purchases was made. City Manager Bill Horne represented the city that day, along with Assistant City Manager Michael Delk and City Attorney Pam Akin.
Horne said the sit-down, which took place at a Scientology office building on N Fort Harrison Avenue, was intended to “reestablish communication” after several years of silence from Miscavige and to “cement a commitment that we continue to meet.” The meeting, requested by Miscavige, was not the setting for difficult discussions, he said.
Horne said a rapport has to be reestablished before higher level conversations can take place. He added that the Times’ reporting on Scientology’s activities complicates the city’s ability to communicate with church officials because “they know that we are constantly asked by the media to share what we discuss, what we talk about, confidences.”
“When you meet for the first time in three years, you want to continue to meet,” Horne said. “This is a very difficult thing we’re doing here. We’ve got to be very careful if the goal is for us to have a level of communication so we can begin to address some of the concerns the community has."
Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw did not respond to questions about the meeting or a request to interview Miscavige.
Miscavige cut communication in April 2017, when the City Council voted unanimously to buy a vacant downtown lot that the church and the city both bid on.
He had met with council members in private meetings one month earlier to detail a downtown revitalization plan he had developed without city or community input. Miscavige told the city he was willing to pay millions to renovate Cleveland Street building facades, recruit high-end retail to empty storefronts and build an entertainment complex with actor and parishioner Tom Cruise.
But his offer hinged on the church’s ability to buy the vacant lot. After the council voted to buy the property, Miscavige went quiet. Then the flood of purchases by limited liability companies controlled by members of Scientology took off.
Miscavige presented his retail offer in March 2017, one month after the city approved a conceptual plan for Imagine Clearwater, a now-$64 million renovation of the downtown waterfront as a strategy to revitalize the surrounding downtown blocks. After the three-year rush of real estate purchases, companies tied to Scientology now own most of the retail space within walking distance of the downtown waterfront, a Times analysis showed.
Delk, the assistant city manager in charge of Imagine Clearwater, said part of the meeting was dedicated to showing Miscavige updated renderings of the project, which is still under design.
“He seemed to take a lot of interest in that, had good comments about it, spoke positively of it,” Delk said of Miscavige. “He reiterated on many occasions that their objectives were the same as ours: to have a successful downtown.”
Starting next week, the city will hold a series of public meetings to show residents the updated Imagine Clearwater design plans.
Horne, Delk and Akin did not provide detail about what was discussed other than to say the meeting was about reconnecting.
“It was a meeting to get sort of reestablished and reacquainted,” Akin said. “They are a major property owner in the downtown and obviously a major stakeholder and we need to be talking to our major stakeholders. It had been some time since there had been a conversation, so it was important to have that conversation.”
Mayor George Cretekos said he would have liked to get an answer on the church’s plans for its new properties but that it’s important to first “have a basis of understanding and communication.”
“You try to create a path that will work going forward,” Cretekos said. “I understand that if they questioned him, he might have said 'Ok we’re not talking again for another three years.’”
City Council member Bob Cundiff said it makes sense to take the relationship slow.
“I would not ask a question to someone that would make them angry and not give me the information I’m looking for,” Cundiff said. “There’s no sense in doing that. I’m not saying that’s Miscavige. That’s general communication.”
City Council member Hoyt Hamilton said he was surprised city officials did not ask Miscavige about the properties. But he expects there to be future meetings to do so.
Council member Jay Polglaze declined to comment on the meeting, and council member David Allbritton did not respond to requests for comment.
Horne, Delk and Akin said the meeting ended with an agreement to continue talking and to try to end the perception that the city and church are at an impasse. A follow-up meeting has not been scheduled.
“Both of us have read it in the paper that we haven’t been communicating and neither party likes the way it reads,” Delk said. “We should have a line of communication.”
Horne said the relationship with the church going forward will require the city to balance transparency with the public and maintaining the cooperation of the private organization.
“We ended up, I think, in a good place where we will continue to have good conversations in the future,” he said.