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Downtown Clearwater board election could bring majority Scientology representation

CHRIS URSO | Times
Boxcar racers make their way down Cleveland Street, which was converted into a track, as spectators look on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016 in Clearwater.The annual Achieva Box Car Rally is one of the events the Downtown Development Board promotes and funds. Tuesday's DDB election could result in the first time any elected board or committee is made up by a majority of people associated with the Church of Scientology, downtown's largest landowner.
Published Oct. 6, 2017

CLEARWATER — For what appears to be the first time ever, an elected city board could be made up by a majority of people associated with the Church of Scientology, downtown's largest and most influential property owner.

The Downtown Development Board, which oversees a special taxing district tasked with marketing downtown and promoting events, has three of its seven seats up for grabs in an election that will be counted Tuesday. Four of the nine candidates, who are required to live, work or own a business downtown, are Scientology parishioners.

Two of the seven current board members are also parishioners and business owners, setting up the potential for the board to be represented by a clear majority of officials associated with the Church of Scientology, which owns $207 million worth of property under its name and at least another $27 million under anonymous LLCs.

It would be the first time in City Manager Bill Horne's 20-year tenure that members of downtown's most influential institution had a majority representation on any elected board or committee. No other religious organization, business or nonprofit owns the mass of real estate or has a comparable footprint downtown, where the Church of Scientology has its international spiritual headquarters.

With the city embarking on its $55 million waterfront revitalization plan Imagine Clearwater, and the church's intentions for recently acquired property still unknown, the question about the board's potential dynamic remains.

"The board's purpose is to promote downtown businesses and practices that support downtown property owners and downtown objectives," Horne said. "If (the election) results in an overwhelming majority of the board members being parishioners of the church, the proof is going to be in the pudding. Does that really change the characteristics of the board, does it change or influence their decisions?"

The DDB has a $282,000 annual budget generated through a special tax on the properties within the boundaries, which is a jigsaw-shaped district encompassing downtown. The board is tasked with marketing events, promoting tourism, providing assistance to businesses and other initiatives.

Only the 247 property owners within the district are eligible to vote for board members. The DDB mailed ballots to voters Sept. 18, and a committee overseen by the Supervisor of Elections will tally the results Tuesday.

Keanan Kintzel, who's had his Buzzazz Business Solutions downtown for 12 years, said he's running for the DDB to help bring more family friendly events to the area on a regular basis, including more music festivals. He said his background in Scientology did not influence his decision, and having a majority of Scientologists on an elected board should not favor the church over the general public.

"I don't think it really matters in Congress or the Supreme Court or a small little group like this," Kintzel said. "If the group is there as a common purpose to grow a community, I don't care what their background is."

DDB candidate Ray Cassano, who owns Station Square Realty and is a member of the church, declined to comment on the election and hung up on a reporter. Candidates and parishioners Jere Jarrett and Gene Obolensky did not respond to requests for comment.

Church of Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw noted in a statement Friday that no official church staff member is running. With the presence of business owners who are also parishioners downtown, their participation in an election "is inevitable, simply because they are citizens of Clearwater."

Realtor Fran Bartlett, who is not a Scientologist, said she decided to run for DDB because "Clearwater is being left in the dust by downtown St. Pete and Dunedin and it's a tremendous opportunity to get some things turned around."

Bartlett said some in the general public can feel "afraid to go downtown" because of Scientology's tremendous presence, reminiscent of the Catholic Church in Rome or the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City.

"We have to figure out how to strike a balance," Bartlett said, who has also developed three restaurants in the city.

"One of the things that hurts us is that Scientology does own so much property. If they don't let loose to some new development, I don't know if we'll be able to get it done."

In March, Scientology leader David Miscavige met privately with all City Council members except for Doreen Caudell, who declined, to propose bankrolling a facade overhaul of Cleveland Street buildings, recruiting high-end retail to empty storefronts and launching an entertainment complex with actor Tom Cruise.

The offer hinged on the church's ability to buy a 1.4-acre vacant lot on Pierce Street.

After the city bought the lot from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in April, Miscavige rescinded the revitalization offer and ended all communication with city officials.

Before Miscavige revealed his retail plan to the Council, the church bought $27 million of downtown property under anonymous LLCs. The church has not released plans for those properties.

While the DDB has in the past focused on facade grants and other capital projects, the board has shifted over the past year to downtown marketing, event sponsorship and beautification, said Community Redevelopment Agency Director Seth Taylor.

The CRA's board, which is made up by City Council members, is focused on acquiring property, recruiting businesses and investing in infrastructure improvements.

Taylor said the DDB "helps amplify and enhance the work of the CRA."

"It's encouraging to see we do have more candidates than past years," Taylor said of the DDB election. "To me, that's a sign, an indication, there's growing interest among the downtown community to play a role in the decision making for the future of downtown Clearwater... Religion is not a factor from my viewpoint."

Mayor George Cretekos said even though the Church of Scientology is the largest property owner downtown, having a majority of parishioners on an elected board would be no different than "if they were all Greek Orthodox and businessmen in my opinion."

"I would hope they would act on behalf of the community before their church," Cretekos said. "A responsibility any person has when he is elected to office is for the best interest of the community. That's part of the oath you take."

Contact Tracey McManus at tmcmanus@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

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