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Clearwater sets terms for land swap: Tell us your plans, Scientology.

City Council members say they won’t agree to trade land without hearing more from church leader David Miscavige.
 
Pedestrians and cyclists walk past a vacant building at 635 Cleveland St. in Clearwater that is owned by a company controlled by Church of Scientology parishioners.
Pedestrians and cyclists walk past a vacant building at 635 Cleveland St. in Clearwater that is owned by a company controlled by Church of Scientology parishioners. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published May 23, 2023|Updated May 23, 2023

For more than a year, as former City Manager Jon Jennings negotiated a major downtown land swap with Scientology leader David Miscavige, City Council members were not privy to the details.

Now that they have learned more, all five of them said in interviews they are not impressed with what’s been proposed. They also said they would not be willing to make any trade unless Miscavige discloses his plans for at least 176 downtown parcels purchased since 2017 by limited liability companies managed by Scientology parishioners.

Most of the properties have remained vacant or undeveloped, frustrating the city’s efforts to revitalize downtown.

A notice is seen in the window of a business in the 600 block of Cleveland Street in downtown Clearwater.
A notice is seen in the window of a business in the 600 block of Cleveland Street in downtown Clearwater. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

“I need to know more,” said council member Lina Teixeira. “What is their plan for the rest of downtown? I’ve been waiting for a long time, so I want something concrete. Without that, I don’t see this as a deal at all.”

Mayor Brian Aungst Sr. said he was “very ambivalent” about a land swap. “If we make any kind of deal,” he added, “we’d want some kind of guarantee that a lot of these properties that have been purchased are going to be activated.”

Any deal involving properties each side might give up in a trade would require council approval, but Jennings led the negotiations with Miscavige until the council fired him on Jan. 5. His successor, City Manager Jennifer Poirrier, said she met with two church officials on Jan. 20 to learn what Miscavige and Jennings had discussed.

She then obtained appraisals on the properties and relayed to each council member earlier this month the locations and the gap in values. So far, the land the city would give up is worth $3 million more than what the church is offering.

The proposed swap includes the city giving up a decommissioned fire station on Franklin Street and a 1.4-acre vacant lot on Pierce Street near the waterfront that Miscavige has coveted. Together, the properties are valued at $10.1 million, according to the average of two sets of appraisals completed by the city.

In exchange, the church would give up vacant property around the northeast corner of South Fort Harrison Avenue and Chestnut Street. The eight parcels are valued at an average of $7.1 million, according to the city’s two appraisals.

The city already owns two parcels on the northern and eastern edges of this corner, and combined, the land would create a prominent canvas for redevelopment because drivers pass the corner when approaching and exiting the bridge for Clearwater Beach.

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None of the parcels the church is offering are owned by the Scientology organization, according to property records. They are owned by companies managed by parishioners and were part of the wave of purchases that began in 2017.

Church officials have repeatedly denied being involved in the purchases, which total at least $131 million as of the latest transaction this month.

“The Church was unaware of the significant number of properties owned by Scientologists in the Clearwater area and are delighted you provided the information,” a church attorney wrote to the Times in 2019 when asked about the purchases, which included the parcels now included in the proposed swap.

In 2020, according to city officials who spoke with Miscavige, the Scientology leader reiterated that the purchases were the work of individual parishioners and not coordinated by the church.

In an interview with the Times on May 17, Jennings, the former city manager, said he had not directly asked Miscavige if the church is the true owner behind the parishioner-run properties.

Jon Jennings
Jon Jennings [ NICOLE RICHMAN | Portland, Maine ]

But he said the Scientology leader confirmed he is using the sprawling real estate holdings “as a source of leverage” against the city to get a land swap done — a scenario at odds with previous church statements.

According to Jennings, Miscavige said that if he is able to acquire the city’s Pierce Street lot in a land swap, he intends to implement a retail overhaul that he first unveiled in 2017. Under the plan, created without city input, Scientology would renovate building facades on four blocks of Cleveland Street and use consultants to recruit high-end retailers to empty storefronts. It also includes building an entertainment complex on vacant land on Myrtle Avenue with a movie theater, bowling alley and dining.

If the land swap does not go through, Jennings said “common sense tells me” that Miscavige will keep the properties vacant or use them for Scientology-related projects, like a museum honoring founder L. Ron Hubbard.

Scientology spokesperson Ben Shaw did not respond to two requests for comment for this story.

Miscavige detailed the church’s retail plan to City Council members in individual meetings in early 2017. He made clear at the time that the redevelopment depended on the city abandoning its plans to buy the lot on Pierce Street that was then owned by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. The church wanted the lot to build a pool and amenities for parishioners staying at the 13-story Oak Cove religious retreat next door, Shaw said at the time.

Instead, the council rebuffed Miscavige, voting unanimously in April 2017 to buy the lot from the aquarium for $4.25 million to incorporate in its downtown waterfront redevelopment. The wave of cash land purchases by companies tied to Scientology followed immediately after.

A driver negotiates Cleveland Street while passing the former location of Trickels Jewelry & Gifts at 714 Cleveland St., a now-vacant building owned by a company controlled by the Church of Scientology.
A driver negotiates Cleveland Street while passing the former location of Trickels Jewelry & Gifts at 714 Cleveland St., a now-vacant building owned by a company controlled by the Church of Scientology. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

The properties surround the $84 million downtown waterfront park opening next month with a 4,000-seat covered amphitheater, garden, plaza and bluff walk.

“This isn’t just about a couple of properties, this is about really the opportunity to move the downtown forward,” Jennings said of the swap.

But Miscavige’s actions have shown “he is a man that should not be trusted,” said City Council member Mark Bunker, a longtime Scientology critic.

If the city were to engage in a swap, Bunker said he’d want to transfer the Pierce Street lot to the church only after Miscavige brought businesses to the empty properties controlled by the church.

“My feeling is that making this deal with Miscavige is just giving in to a guy who’s damaged the city to hold us hostage,” Bunker said. “There may be some benefit to actually doing the deal, but ultimately I don’t think Miscavige should be rewarded because we still haven’t seen effort from him to actually come through on a thriving downtown.”

Council member David Allbritton said he would require more from Scientology in a swap, considering the impact the vacancies have had. “I’m not looking for a 1-to-1 trade, I’m looking for something better than that because they owe it to us,” Allbritton said.

From left, vacant buildings located at 809, 807 and 805 Park St. in Clearwater. They are owned by a company controlled by a Scientology parishioner.
From left, vacant buildings located at 809, 807 and 805 Park St. in Clearwater. They are owned by a company controlled by a Scientology parishioner. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

Poirrier, the city manager, said she is scheduling a follow-up meeting with church officials to determine next steps. Her meeting on Jan. 20 was with Shaw, the Scientology spokesperson, and church legal director Sarah Heller.

On March 31, Heller emailed the city information on three additional church-controlled properties to close the gap in value on the Scientology side of the deal, according to economic development and housing assistant director Chuck Lane.

Those properties are a shopping center at 1186 Cleveland St.; a cluster of mostly vacant parcels on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue across from the Apex apartment complex; and a lot on Hendricks Street that borders a city-owned parking garage.

However, all five council members said they weren’t swayed by those parcels.

Poirrier said she is not sure whether Miscavige will attend the next meeting but her goal is to see what negotiation is possible.

“I want to know is there room for further discussion,” she said, “or is this it?”