Downtown property owners will vote next week to fill two seats on the Downtown Development Board, an advisory body that provides grants and marketing to businesses. As in the last election, the vote could increase representation on the board of members tied to downtown’s largest and most influential property owner — the Church of Scientology.
Property owners within the the development board’s boundaries will consider four candidates: Real estate broker Ray Cassano, real estate broker Terry Novitsky, fitness professional Derek Williams and real estate investor Nick Petrantoni. Cassano — the only incumbent — and Novitsky, are members of Scientology. Williams and Petrantoni are not. The two top finishers would get elected.
Four of the seven sitting members of the downtown development board, which cannot pass ordinances or hire and fire staff, are also Scientology parishioners. The majority arrived last year, becoming the first city board made up of mostly members of the church.
The shift in the board’s makeup happened during a real estate sea change downtown. Between 2017 and 2019, companies tied to Scientology purchased about 100 properties within walking distance of the downtown waterfront, spending $103 million, almost all in cash.
In July, the development board adopted a policy that limits discussion from members and the public to matters “that are relevant to the (Downtown Development Board’s) district and purpose.” City council member Mark Bunker, a longtime Scientology critic elected in March, said he took that as an effort to prevent him from discussing Scientology’s impact on downtown with the development board. The policy change was enacted two meetings after the council appointed Bunker to serve as a non-voting member on the development board.
Board attorney Elise Winters said the rule was a result of the group’s efforts over the past few years to update policies and not to Bunker’s activism. She said the development board should limit its discussions to issues it has authority over, which does not include the real estate activity of church officials.
"If the topic is ‘how can we make Scientology provide this information to us,’ the answer is we can’t and why are we wasting time talking about it?” Winters said on Tuesday.
The board functions mostly to provide grants using funds collected through a special tax on downtown property owners and to promote revitalization in the area. In June, the board provided $50,000 to the city’s grant program for business owners impacted by the coronaivrus pandemic. It also gave $21,250 to the Clearwater Downtown Merchant’s Association in September to support live music on Cleveland Street for the rest of the year.
Cassano and Novitsky both control companies that bought properties during the three-year period of unprecedented real estate purchases by companies controlled by church members. Five companies controlled by Cassano and Shahab Emrani, who was elected to the development board last year, bought nine downtown properties since 2017. Five of those — a vacant Walgreens on Cleveland Street, an empty office building on Chestnut Street and three vacant lots north of downtown — remain undeveloped.
Cassano, 68, hung up on a reporter when reached for comment and did not respond to a follow-up text message.
Novitsky, 65, said Scientology does not dictate her business or activity downtown. She has operated her real estate office for five years on Drew Street and said she’s running for the board to support the city’s ongoing revitalization efforts.
“I feel very strongly about having a woman’s viewpoint on there, especially as a business owner,” Novitsky said of the board with six of its seven members being men. “I’d love to see (revitalization) come to fruition. I’d like to see our city develop like St. Pete or Tampa.”
Derek Williams, 42, owner of personal training business Mr r1nf1n1ty, said he’s running for office to help bring life downtown with the perspective of a young professional. He said downtown has a stigma of being overshadowed by Scientology, and he wants to work to facilitate more businesses to fill empty storefronts.
“People need to know they can come downtown, they can be accepted in downtown Clearwater from any background, any orientation and enjoy themselves and feel wanted and respected,” Williams said.
Petrantoni, 27, who runs his development company Clearwater Holdings out of the Ring co-workspace on Cleveland Street, said he wants to be a part of the ongoing efforts on Imagine Clearwater, the city’s $64 million redevelopment plan for the downtown waterfront. He said his connections in the development community and passion for the city could help in the promotion of the project.
“We’ve got to kind of change the culture a little bit to make it more open for the local developers to come in there and tap into the potential of Clearwater,” Petrantoni said.
Development board members are volunteers and serve three-year terms.