CLEARWATER — An introductory meeting last month between new City Manager Jon Jennings and Church of Scientology leader David Miscavige has flowered into a series of discussions as the two contemplate the church’s potential involvement in downtown redevelopment.
Jennings said he has had four phone calls with Miscavige since an initial meeting on Nov. 29, which also was attended by City Attorney David Margolis and Mayor Frank Hibbard.
That 3½-hour sit-down included talk of a “partnership” between the city and the church but did not nail down any timeline for a deal, Jennings and Hibbard confirmed at the time.
The subsequent discussions suggest that the idea has quickly gained momentum. Any deal would require review and approval by the City Council. But in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Jennings said he is trying to negotiate a plan that would be “in the best interest of the city.”
Jennings said he suggested that Miscavige or the church’s consultants make a public presentation to the community in January outlining Scientology’s proposal to renovate four blocks of Cleveland Street, recruit retailers to empty storefronts and build an entertainment complex on vacant Myrtle Avenue land. He said Miscavige responded that “he’ll think about it.”
“The discussions have really been how can we figure out a path forward on real estate,” Jennings said. “It has nothing to do with any church teachings or anything else, exclusively land they own that we would like them to activate.”
Jennings said he is negotiating terms for a land swap to be paired with Scientology’s retail proposal, where the city would receive certain church properties in exchange for a 1.4-acre vacant parcel on Pierce Street that the church has long coveted. Citing the ongoing negotiations, Jennings declined to identify the church properties he’d like the city to receive in a swap.
Jennings said he believes a real estate trade must be paired with a downtown renovation by Miscavige.
“We want our downtown to be vibrant and exciting and they own the vast majority of downtown (property),” Jennings said. “In my opinion it’s not just about a property swap, it’s an activation of those properties.”
Jennings said his goal is to overcome decades of mistrust between Scientology and the community in order to revitalize the long-stagnant downtown in the best interests of the public. A former scout for the Boston Celtics and advisor in the Clinton White House, Jennings said he is drawing on negotiating experience he has honed by dealing with professional athletes, politicians and other personalities.
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Having begun work in Clearwater on Nov. 8 following the 20-year tenure of former City Manager Bill Horne, Jennings said he brings the advantage of a fresh face without the historical baggage that exists between the city and Scientology.
“I just hope people will give me the space and the time to work on this because what’s happened over the last 20 years isn’t working,” Jennings said.
In a statement to the Times, Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw said the church is willing to partner with the city as recommended by consultants from the Urban Land Institute, who were hired by the city to study downtown in 2014.
“The Church and Scientologists are as desirous of and committed to revitalization of downtown as any citizen or institution in Clearwater,” Shaw stated.
He declined to explain how recent Scientology-tied purchases of vast tracts of property downtown have proven the church to be a trustworthy partner.
Since 2017, limited liability companies managed or operated by Scientology parishioners have purchased at least 145 parcels in downtown and the nearby North Marina Area, spending more than $111 million in cash. But more than half of those parcels have sat empty and undeveloped for years while the city is trying to bring life to the area with its ongoing $84 million renovation of the downtown waterfront.
The Scientology-tied purchases are one reason why City Council member Mark Bunker said he does not believe Miscavige can be trusted.
“With the history that they’ve had here and the history of them stabbing us in our back every time we try to work with them, I just don’t see this panning out,” Bunker said.
Miscavige met with City Council members individually in March 2017 to present the same retail proposal for renovating Cleveland Street that he is now showing to Jennings.
He made clear at the time his offer depended on the city not interfering with the church’s attempt to purchase the 1.4-acre vacant lot on Pierce Street, which is adjacent to Scientology’s religious retreat and across the street from the former City Hall.
After the council voted in April 2017 to buy the lot from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium for the downtown waterfront revitalization plan, the limited liability companies tied to the church began buying vast tracts of downtown property and keeping them vacant.
“This is not a partner, this is a person who is at war with us,” Bunker said.
Jennings said he is looking at Scientology as a “real estate development partner” as he would any other large land owner or institution.
“I’m a person that doesn’t have the long 45-year baggage,” Jennings said, referencing Scientology’s arrival to Clearwater in 1975. “If this was Marriott Corporation we would have had a deal long ago.”
To help bring context to Scientology’s history and motivations, Bunker helped arrange a meeting this week between Jennings and Mike Rinder, a former longtime Scientology executive who worked as a top church spokesperson before defecting in 2007.
In a recent blog post, Rinder cited various policies written by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard that illuminate the way the church approaches dealings with governments.
“Peace is bought with an exchange of advantage, so make the advantage and then settle,” states a 1960 Hubbard policy. “Don’t ever defend. Always attack. Don’t ever do nothing. Unexpected attacks in the rear of the enemy’s front ranks work best.”