After a contentious 46-year history in Clearwater, three top city officials and Church of Scientology leader David Miscavige met this week to discuss how to start fresh.
The meeting on Monday at a church office on North Fort Harrison Avenue served as an introduction between Miscavige and Clearwater’s two newest administrators: City Manager Jon Jennings, who took over on Nov. 8, and City Attorney David Margolis, who started on Oct. 25. Mayor Frank Hibbard also took part in the meeting.
“I heard loud and clear from (Miscavige) that he wants to partner with the city,” Jennings said. “From my perspective, a partnership is really that we are going to put the past behind us in terms of any acrimony and so forth and that we are going to develop a place of trust where we can work collaboratively together.”
That partnership would relate primarily to redeveloping downtown, where Scientology has had its international spiritual headquarters since 1975 and where companies connected to the church have purchased large tracts of real estate in recent years. During a sit-down that lasted 3½ hours, Miscavige reintroduced photo renderings and a video simulation of the downtown retail plan Scientology developed in 2017, according to Hibbard.
The plan, created without city input, included Scientology paying to renovate facades of buildings on four blocks of Cleveland Street and using consultants to recruit high-end retailers to empty storefronts. It also included building an entertainment complex along vacant land on Myrtle Avenue with a movie theater, bowling alley and dining.
Miscavige confirmed at the time the church used limited liability companies to purchase the Myrtle Avenue land, a vacant jewelry store and auto garage, a nine-story office tower and a historic theater on North Fort Harrison Avenue for the retail plan.
In March 2017, Miscavige showed the plan in one-on-one meetings to City Council members and then-City Manager Bill Horne. In mid-April 2017, he invited about 70 hand-selected downtown stakeholders and business owners to Scientology’s Fort Harrison Hotel for a presentation of the plan. Miscavige declined to publish the plan for the general public.
In return for redeveloping downtown, Miscavige asked the city to abandon its plan to purchase a vacant 1.4-acre lot on Pierce Street that sits between the former City Hall and Scientology’s Oak Cove religious retreat.
In a statement to the Tampa Bay Times on April 17, 2017, Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw confirmed Miscavige’s retail plan was contingent on Scientology acquiring the lot to build a pool and other amenities for parishioners.
“Mr. Miscavige also informed the downtown property owners, business owners and stakeholders that if the plans went through, depending on the City’s non-interference with the Church purchase of the Oak Cove lot, the Church will have spent $55 million by the end of the year, 2017, on downtown redevelopment,” Shaw wrote.
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But the City Council voted unanimously on April 20, 2017, to buy the lot to include in its now-$84 million downtown waterfront redevelopment project, Imagine Clearwater, which broke ground in August.
After the vote, Miscavige cut communication with city officials for 2½ years. During that period, limited liability companies managed by Scientology parishioners purchased 100 properties in downtown. About half of them are still vacant. Miscavige began meeting with city officials again in November 2019.
Since July 2019, limited liability companies managed by parishioners bought 45 properties in the North Marina Area near downtown, another redevelopment priority area for the city.
Shaw has previously said the church did not orchestrate the downtown or North Marina acquisitions.
Jennings and Hibbard said that during their meeting on Monday, they did not ask Miscavige whether he controls the properties owned by limited liability companies.
But it was clear the properties could factor into a future redevelopment partnership.
“You can bring people along in a master plan,” Jennings said. “That would be on him and the church to aggregate properties if indeed that’s the direction we want to go. ... It wasn’t about getting into the detail of who owns what.”
Jennings said they also did not confirm what Miscavige was asking for this time in return for the redevelopment.
“That would be part of the negotiations,” Jennings said. “He has interests as the city has interests, so those are all things that we would have to work collaboratively on.”
Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw did not respond to a request for comment about Monday’s meeting. But Hibbard said Miscavige provided the city officials with copies of a 2014 Urban Land Institute report, in which consultants wrote that Scientology and the city “must become partners in the future of the city. If they cannot, no one else will.”
Although they did not get into specifics, Hibbard said a potential land swap could be part of a deal. Hibbard said Miscavige made clear he was still interested in acquiring the Pierce Street lot, now owned by the city.
The mayor said he sees certain church-owned properties as prime candidates for a trade to complement the city’s ongoing $84 million buildout of the waterfront park. Those include: Scientology’s Sandcastle religious retreat on North Osceola Avenue, its Coachman Building on Cleveland Street and what used to be known as the “superblock” on North Fort Harrison Avenue across from the Main Library that includes a parking lot and church offices.
In his 35 years as Scientology’s leader, Miscavige has been known to have occasional interactions with city officials. He sat down a handful of times with two of Jennings’ predecessors, Mike Roberto and Bill Horne. But such meetings remain rare.
“It was positive, it was cordial, it was educational,” Hibbard said of Monday’s gathering.
Jennings said his next step is to debrief the other four council members on the meeting and get their feedback on how to move forward in the partnership with the church. He said his priority is to act in a way that is in “the best interest of the city.”
“Taking the Church of Scientology out of this, if any developer came to the city and they own X number of properties and they want to work with the city on a new design, we’d have that meeting every day of the week,” Jennings said. “That’s the way in which I’m approaching this.”