CLEARWATER — The day after the City Council fired City Manager Jon Jennings and appointed Jennifer Poirrier as his interim successor, a series of blocked calls appeared on Poirrier’s cell.
She picked up on the fourth “No ID” call in a row. It was Church of Scientology leader David Miscavige.
“He called my personal phone, so I don’t know how he got that number,” she said.
Miscavige called on Jan. 6, Poirrier said, to explain he would soon arrange a meeting to catch her up on the discussions he’d been having with Jennings about the church’s plans for its downtown real estate.
The show of urgency from Scientology’s leader comes in contrast to the lack of progress on those plans despite 14 months of negotiations between Jennings and Miscavige.
Dozens of downtown properties are being held vacant by companies tied to Scientology, a situation Jennings said he was trying to remedy through a land swap with the church. But council members have expressed frustration that a deal has yet to materialize. They also said they are in the dark about the status of the negotiations with Miscavige because Jennings never disclosed details with them.
“Until I see some kind of something from the church ... I just don’t think I can really trust them,” council member David Allbritton said at a work session on Monday.
“If they really wanted to have a vibrant downtown, why aren’t they doing something?” Allbritton said. “Are they waiting for us? I mean look what we’ve done. We’ve got Imagine Clearwater, and we’ve got development on the bluff planned. There’s a lot of things that are happening on our end, nothing on their end.”
Jennings spoke regularly on the phone with Miscavige, in some periods on a weekly basis, he told the Tampa Bay Times in previous interviews. It was a new era, since Miscavige went years without talking to city officials consistently before Jennings’ arrival in November 2021.
Jennings and Miscavige had six in-person meetings, the last held at Scientology’s Fort Harrison Hotel on May 29, 2022, according to public records. For their other five meetings, which took place between November 2021 and March 2022, Jennings and Miscavige met at a church office on Drew Street and North Fort Harrison Avenue, always after 5 p.m.
Jennings did not respond to voicemail on Friday asking for an update on those discussions. But he previously said the swap the two were negotiating potentially included the church receiving a 1.4-acre city lot on the downtown waterfront and Clearwater receiving Scientology-owned land that could help the city’s downtown revitalization efforts.
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Any land swap would require City Council approval, and council members expressed frustration that Jennings never updated them about his talks with Miscavige. They said Jennings did not tell them which city properties he was suggesting to trade or which church parcels the Scientology leader was offering.
“I’ve asked repeatedly, ‘What’s being discussed? What’s on the table?’” council member Lina Teixeira said. “It’s always like, ‘We’re working on it, we’re working on it.’”
In an interview last February, Jennings said he and Miscavige agreed on a partnership where the church would renovate three parishioner-controlled buildings on Cleveland Street and recruit high-end retail to the storefronts. He called it a show of “good faith to the community” by Miscavige while the two negotiated the land swap.
Jennings characterized the church’s renovation of the three Cleveland Street buildings as the first phase of a broader activation for other downtown properties controlled by Scientology.
Nearly one year later, however, no visible construction has begun on the three Cleveland Street properties and the land swap has not been presented to the City Council for a vote.
Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw did not respond to an email asking why dozens of church-controlled properties remain vacant.
Council member Mark Bunker said the lack of progress again shows “we can’t exactly trust what Miscavige says.”
In late 2016, Miscavige told city officials the church was done buying downtown property. Then in early 2017, he confirmed to council members that the church was behind the purchase of six properties totaling $26 million. The purchases were part of a redevelopment plan that Miscavige was offering to pay for if the city stepped aside and allowed him to buy the 1.4-acre lot on the waterfront, then owned by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
But after the city rejected his offer in April 2017 and bought the lot from the aquarium, companies tied to the church went on a buying spree.
Since 2017, companies controlled by members of Scientology have bought about 160 parcels in and around downtown for $120 million in cash. More than half remain vacant or undeveloped.
“(Miscavige) has had every opportunity to deliver a vibrant downtown since 2017 and he has refused to do so,” Bunker said.
Poirrier said she will go into meetings with Miscavige with an open mind. But she told him she knows nothing about the discussions to date because Jennings never filled her in. She previously served as assistant city manager under Jennings.
“(Miscavige) said he was surprised to hear there wasn’t more information being shared, that it wasn’t the impression he had,” Poirrier said. “I want to continue to hear what the council’s expectations are, but yes, I’m open to having conversations about what the offer is.”
As interim city manager, Poirrier will handle conversations with Miscavige in the short term. The city is expected to launch a national search for a city manager in the next 30 days, and Poirrier said she hasn’t decided yet if she’ll apply.
Allbritton said he will have stern advice for whoever becomes Clearwater’s top administrator.
“I still feel that we need to be talking, but the next city manager that comes in, my first word is going to be: Be very careful with the church, because I don’t see any progression.” Allbritton said.