Clearwater officials clash over project: ‘You and I can settle it outside’

Council members Kathleen Beckman and Mark Bunker said they weren’t told of city discussions with the Church of Scientology about an affordable housing project.
The city's former Fire Station No. 45 is in the foreground on Franklin Street with the Church of Scientology's Flag building to the west.
The city's former Fire Station No. 45 is in the foreground on Franklin Street with the Church of Scientology's Flag building to the west. [ TRACEY MCMANUS | Times ]
Published Sep. 16, 2022|Updated Sep. 16, 2022

Two Clearwater City Council members on Thursday raised concerns that City Manager Jon Jennings did not disclose he was talking to the Church of Scientology about efforts to move a developer’s affordable housing project to a new location prior to the deal falling through in June.

The comments at the City Council meeting follow a Tampa Bay Times story published Sunday that detailed how Scientology contacted Blue Sky Communities president Shawn Wilson earlier this year to relocate his 81-unit project from an old downtown fire station to a parishioner-controlled lot nearby. Jennings said he tried to facilitate the talks so the fire station could be used instead in a land swap with Scientology, a deal he said could boost the city’s revitalization efforts.

When the state denied the transfer of $17 million in tax credits to the new site, Wilson canceled the project altogether after three years of planning and more than $21 million of state, city and county funds that were allocated but not spent. He said the project was financially unfeasible and that Scientology officials did not pressure him.

“I was very disturbed to find out that the affordable project that we had 4-1 voted to have at the old fire house was lost largely because of Scientology’s meddling and the city’s efforts to appease (Scientology leader) David Miscavige,” council member Mark Bunker said Thursday.

Council member Kathleen Beckman said she was also “really confused” by the revelations because Jennings never told her that he was in talks with Scientology to relocate the project.

Jennings responded that he did tell Beckman “on several occasions” that the deal was falling through due to financial issues, but he did not address whether he told her about the discussions with Scientology to move it. In earlier interviews, council members David Allbritton and Lina Teixeira confirmed that they did not know the city was in talks in April with Scientology about moving it.

“I’ve really grown tired of the attacks on my character,” Jennings said. “I’ve decided to put everything in writing at this point.”

In December, the council voted 4-1 to dedicate $1.8 million to the housing project when Wilson said costs had skyrocketed. Mayor Frank Hibbard voted no.

On Thursday, Hibbard snapped “that’s not true” when Bunker said the mayor voted against the funds so the property could be used in a land swap.

But in the work session before the 4-1 vote, Hibbard said 81 units would not help the housing crisis and that the land would be better used “to trade for more strategic properties for downtown with the Church of Scientology.”

Hibbard took issue with Bunker’s characterization that “(Jennings) and the mayor had been in on this maneuvering” by Scientology. Hibbard previously confirmed Jennings updated him during talks with Miscavige about the proposed relocation, but said he had no contact with Scientology or Wilson himself.

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Before the deal fell through, Jennings also emailed Hibbard the aerial site plan image of Wilson’s project on the church’s alternate location.

“Don’t characterize that I had anything to do to undermine that project or you and I can settle it outside,” Hibbard said.

“Oh, come on,” Bunker responded.

Miscavige wants to build a museum honoring Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard on the fire station site, Jennings confirmed. On Thursday, Jennings added that he was facilitating the talks because Miscavige proposed putting the museum on a prominent parcel at a corner off Court Street that drivers pass on the way to Clearwater Beach.

“All I was trying to do was to make sure the L. Ron Hubbard museum was not greeting everyone coming and going,” Jennings said.

Although the fire station property now is freed up, the land swap with the church remains stalled as Jennings said he and Miscavige cannot agree on terms.