CLEARWATER — The Clearwater Marine Aquarium has held off on accepting an offer from the Church of Scientology to buy its vacant downtown lot for more than a year, giving city officials first dibs and time to decide if they'd like to buy the land.
Mayor George Cretekos said officials were waiting to pull the trigger until they saw how consultants hired to design a downtown waterfront revitalization plan suggested the 1.4-acre lot across the street from City Hall should be used.
But the plan unveiled Feb. 2 does not explicitly say the city should buy the parcel on the southwest corner of Pierce Street and Osceola Avenue or suggest a specific development. For underused sites on Osceola Avenue the city does not control, including the aquarium lot, consultants wrote the city should ensure "redevelopment uses meet the community's vision and productively contribute to downtown."
Now, the ball is in the city's court to decide the fate of the piece of land that could have long-term impacts on downtown revitalization.
Cretekos said he will ask the City Council to decide whether to buy the land at a special meeting Tuesday about implementation of the consultants' Imagine Clearwater plan. Although the city has discussed buying the lot to solicit the development of a hotel, retail complex or other public uses, Cretekos declined to say what he would advocate for next week.
"I'm going to ask the question as to what ought to be done with that property," Cretekos said, "but I'm not sure I'll say now what my feelings are personally."
Aquarium CEO David Yates said the nonprofit would like to complete the sale "within the next few months," but had been delaying to give the city first preference. If the city declines to buy the lot, "we'll sit down and look at other options," he said.
The Church of Scientology, which has its international spiritual headquarters in downtown Clearwater, offered the aquarium $4.25 million for the lot in 2015.
Church officials are still interested in buying the land adjacent to Scientology's 13-story Oak Cove religious retreat "to provide additional accommodations for our parishioners," spokesman Ben Shaw said in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times.
In July, Scientology leader David Miscavige met one-on-one with the five City Council members to express the church's interest in the lot. It was the first time Miscavige ever held one-on-one meetings with elected officials on a single issue since he became the leader of the religion in 1987.
The aquarium, which is across the Intracoastal Waterway on Island Estates, bought the downtown parcels in 2012 for $2.1 million as part of its former plan to relocate to the current City Hall property.
Voters in 2013 approved a referendum allowing the aquarium to pursue a long-term lease with the city to build a three-story venue for its marine rehabilitation and exhibitions.
But aquarium officials decided in 2015 to stay put and renovate the Island Estates facility instead. The aquarium began its $50 million expansion in September, which will include a 400-space garage; three times the educational space; 103,000 more square feet in overall guest space; and a five-pool dolphin habitat with underwater viewing.
Yates said the profits from the sale of the downtown lot will go toward the ongoing fundraising for the expansion.
But there is not a clear consensus on whether the city should take control of the lot.
City Council member Bob Cundiff said he doesn't think the property is critical to the city because the Imagine Clearwater consultants did not include specific direction in their recommendations.
"If the church bought it, it would be okay with me," Cundiff said. "Whatever they would put there would not detract from the Bluff."
City Council member Hoyt Hamilton, however, said it's a sound and safe investment.
Elected officials are now tasked with prioritizing which parts of the 10-year and potentially $55 million renovation of the waterfront should be implemented first.
As this process reshapes Coachman Park and creates attractions for the public on the waterfront, the city must also work to invite private investment to the area, Hamilton said.
"We can't have any say or have any control over that if we don't own the property," he said. "I'm in favor of spending the money to have control of that property and have it in my toolbox until we know ultimately what exactly the entire Coachman Park/Bluff development is going to look like."
Contact Tracey McManus at email@example.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.