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City: Competing Scientology-related events 'the last thing we need for our downtown'

A Church of Scientology staff member, left, heads across Cleveland Street in downtown Clearwater while Miami tourists Elena Norma, left, and Martha Suarez, center, explore downtown last year. A group of Scientology defectors plans to host a party on Cleveland Street on March 10 to encourage the public to come downtown despite hesitations about the church. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]
Published Jan. 22, 2018

CLEARWATER — On Jan. 9, high-profile Scientology defectors Mike Rinder and Aaron Smith-Levin walked into city offices and applied for a permit to close three blocks of Cleveland Street for their "Support Downtown Clearwater" event March 10.

Their goal was to host food vendors and throw a concert to "bring people to the downtown community and create awareness of downtown business opportunities."

The application didn't mention it, but the hook was a meet-and-greet with ex-Scientologists who've appeared on the Emmy award winning Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath series, with which Smith-Levin and Rinder are involved.

Exactly two days later, the city received another event application, this one from the Church of Scientology to host a downtown block party on March 24.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: In downtown Clearwater, Scientology's bid for an expanded role is a matter of scripture

Both permits have been denied by the city, citing a moratorium on special events in March that would require too much support from off-duty police who are stretched thin with extra work from spring break and baseball spring training. But the close-together events hint at a tension the city is working to avoid between Scientology and an increasingly vocal group of local defectors.

"I am not interested in any competition between these groups," said City Manager Bill Horne, who called Scientology's event application "a clear response" to Rinder and Smith-Levin's. "That is the last thing we need for our downtown."

Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw said the church regularly hosts parties for the community, and its proposed event "was not in response to Aaron Smith-Levin's application." In 2017, city records show Scientology hosted block parties in May, July, September and November.

While the city works to bring retail and residential activity to the long-struggling downtown, Scientology continues to grow its footprint, acquiring at least $27 million in additional property last year alone around its international spiritual headquarters. At the same time, the Remini series has garnered international acclaim for its detailed accounts of abuse, financial exploitation and human trafficking within Scientology — all disputed by the church.

Matt Becker, chair of the nonprofit Clearwater Downtown Partnership, said he'd welcome any event that promotes downtown and "makes people realize it's open for business."

As the city embarks on its $55 million waterfront redevelopment plan, the next 12 months are expected to be consumed by design and planning for the massive overhaul. Becker said he doesn't want any momentum to be lost before ground is broken.

Clearwater Police Chief Daniel Slaughter said March is a demanding month on the 241-officer department, with only about 120 who regularly volunteer for extra duty event shifts. Officers are committed to the 18 spring training games, increased patrol on the beach for peak spring break traffic and the Wild Splash concert.

"It comes down to just a supply and demand issue," Slaughter said. "We don't have the capacity to do a lot more."

Recreation supervisor Lelia Peterson sent letters to both Smith-Levin and Scientology on Jan. 12 denying their event permits. Lucky Anchor bar owner Clay Irwin applied for a permit on Dec. 20 for a pre-St. Patrick's Day party on March 10, but Peterson didn't send him a denial letter until Jan. 16, records show.

A cancer research foundation applied on June 9 to host a 5K event starting downtown on March 10, but that group had not been given a denial letter as of this week. Special events manager Kris Koch said last week the city hadn't responded yet to the foundation because he was "going to try and talk to them about another date, but they will also be being issued a denial letter from us for the March date."

Smith-Levin, who lives in Clearwater and oversaw courses and counseling as a member of the church's Sea Org workforce before leaving in 2013, said his event's aim is to motivate residents who have avoided downtown for years to explore the existing businesses and restaurants.

He and Rinder organized a party at Irwin's bar in December with a handful of other Scientology defectors who appeared on the Remini series. He said about 100 people attended the meet-and-greet, so the group decided to use the show's popularity to energize downtown.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Scientology draws dueling petitions involving Leah Remini, the IRS and change.org

"The majority of these people were people who had not been to downtown Clearwater in several years," Smith-Levin said. "It went so well that (Rinder) and I said we want to do it again and want to make it much bigger and want to use the interest generated in this show to help bring people back to downtown Clearwater and support what the city is trying to do to revitalize the business district."

Smith-Levin said some in the general public he's met feel uneasy about frequenting downtown businesses, unsure if they are owned by the Scientology organization or whether their money may be contributing to alleged abuses.

Shaw said the church's block parties have brought thousands to the downtown core through its block parties with free food and entertainment.

Although Smith-Levin was denied a permit to close down the streets, he said the party will go on.

The "Contributors of Scientology & the Aftermath Meetup & Party" is still being promoted on social media for March 10.

"It will just be on the sidewalks of Cleveland Street," he said. "Everyone in the community is welcome."

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

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