Last week, Mayor Frank Hibbard sat across a conference table from Scientology leader David Miscavige and asked about the dozens of downtown retail properties that have sat vacant since companies tied to the church began purchasing them in 2017.
But Miscavige told Hibbard and city attorney Pam Akin, who also joined the Oct. 30 meeting at a downtown church office, that he was not involved in that real estate.
Hibbard said Miscavige distinguished between parcels controlled by parishioners and property owned by the Church of Scientology organization. When asked about the lack of development on properties purchased since 2017 by parishioners, Miscavige said “it was not coordinated."
“I wanted to get assurances that they do in fact want to have downtown open to everybody, that if there is something we believe would be beneficial for the overall community, that we can discuss it and that they will be supportive and not try to thwart our efforts,” Hibbard said.
Hibbard said Miscavige assured him Scientology parishioners want to see a vibrant downtown and purchased properties because “they believed downtown is poised to take off.”
However, recent history illustrates how companies tied to the church simultaneously acquired prime retail properties, many of which now sit vacant while the city attempts to revitalize downtown.
From 2017 to 2019, 32 limited liability companies controlled by Scientology parishioners bought about 100 commercial properties within walking distance of the downtown waterfront, where the city is preparing to break ground on a $64 million new park.
The companies paid a total of $103 million, almost all in cash. They made offers on buildings that weren’t for sale, and paid two to six times the appraised value. Today, 35 storefronts and buildings are still empty. The new owners have 28 vacant lots. At least 15 businesses that got new landlords tied to Scientology moved out and were not replaced.
“I said normally, with my clients, we try to buy low and sell high,” said Hibbard, founding partner at Hibbard Wealth Management Group. “I said the assumption in the public is there were properties purchased far above market, which seems irrational.”
Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw did not respond to an email or phone message requesting comment.
Most of the purchases followed a clash in early 2017, when the City Council voted to buy a 1.4-acre downtown lot that Miscavige also bid on. Miscavige offered to bankroll a multi-million renovation of downtown buildings, recruit high end retail to empty storefronts and build an entertainment complex with actor and parishioner Tom Cruise if the city backed off the purchase.
After the council voted unanimously to buy the lot in April 2017, Miscavige cut all communication for the next two and a half years. Purchases of surrounding properties by companies tied to Scientology took off during that time.
Hibbard’s meeting was the third time that city officials met with Miscavige since October 2019, when the Tampa Bay Times published an investigation detailing the real estate acquisitions. But it is the first time Hibbard met with Miscavige since the mayor and two other new council members were elected in March.
Hibbard said he requested the meeting following the City Council’s Oct. 20 workshop, where officials discussed a wide range of priorities, including the city’s need for more consistent dialogue with Miscavige. Church officials administered a rapid antigen coronavirus test to Hibbard and Akin in the lobby before the meeting.
“It was a matter of reacquainting one another,” said Hibbard, who dealt with the church during his first two terms as mayor from 2004 to 2012.
Hibbard said Miscavige told him the church has no plans to acquire more property for its international spiritual headquarters, which began downtown in 1975. Scientology now owns 58 properties in Clearwater under its name, 49 of them in downtown. About 73 percent of the property is tax-exempt for religious purposes.
All properties owned by limited liability companies controlled by parishioners remain on the tax rolls.
Miscavige previously acknowledged he controls a half dozen commercial properties church officials acquired in early 2017 with limited liability companies for the so-far rescinded entertainment complex with Tom Cruise.
Those buildings — a former jewelry store, auto garage, restaurant event space and three undeveloped blocks — have sat empty for the nearly four years under Miscavige’s control.
Miscavige said the church is developing new plans for those properties but they are not ready to be shared.
“I told him unless he can share it with the public, it doesn’t help us," Hibbard said.
Hibbard said they agreed to keep communication open and that if he desired a meeting, “all I have to do is call staff and they’ll make a meeting happen.” Akin, the city attorney, said communication will likely be coordinated through the mayor, and Miscavige has not made plans to meet individually with the other four council members.
To city council member Mark Bunker, who was elected in March after campaigning against what he calls fraud and abuse in Scientology, Miscavige’s words are not persuasive.
If Miscavige wanted a vibrant downtown for the public, Bunker said, he would have developed the six properties he bought for the rescinded retail plan with Tom Cruise.
And if Miscavige did not coordinate the acquisition of 100 properties since 2017, “there is nothing stopping him from asking his parishioners, ‘hey, what are your plans,’” Bunker said.
At a city council meeting in May, Bunker proposed the city should ask the FBI to investigate Scientology for alleged racketeering related to the real estate purchases. But none of his four colleagues supported the suggestion.
"For me it stinks. This is why I feel we need somebody higher on the governmental food chain to be investigating this,” Bunker said about the FBI. “By God, I was serious when I said this looks like racketeering to me.”