CLEARWATER — At a recent City Council election debate, the first question pitched to the four candidates was: What is the biggest problem facing Clearwater right now?
Seat 5 incumbent Hoyt Hamilton answered in code.
"I'm willing to work with anybody, but they have to be open and honest in how they communicate and we haven't always had that, so I think one of the biggest problems trying to move Clearwater forward is getting people to communicate openly and honestly with what we're trying to do."
Wait. Who is "they"? Which people are not being honest?
Asked in a later interview if he was referring to the Church of Scientology, which cut communication with city officials last year over a property dispute, Hamilton confirmed he was. So why didn't he come out and say that?
"I didn't want to necessarily just go out and poke the bear," Hamilton said. "To a degree, yes, I'm trying to rebuild the relationship and not make it worse."
The issue of Scientology's massive influence on downtown, and uncertainty about its growth plans, has been notably absent from the campaigns of the four candidates running for two citywide seats in the March 13 election. Addressing it only when prompted, the four men have kept answers vague.
But while the city pushes aggressive initiatives to resurrect its long-struggling downtown, Scientology has simultaneously grown its influence by adding more prime real estate to its portfolio of more than $230 million. At the same time, Scientology officials have cut communication with the city staff, leaving them in the dark about the church's plans for its international spiritual headquarters downtown.
No other church has anywhere close to the same footprint in the city. No other religious organization has its international headquarters downtown. Only Scientology has drawn questions about how its plans could impact the city's goals for revitalization.
But when moderator Al Ruechel, senior Bay News 9 anchor, asked the single question specifically about Scientology's role in Clearwater's future at Thursday's City Hall forum, the candidates kept it vague.
Tom Keller, an advertising salesman running for Seat 4, said he doesn't know much about Scientology but said the city should "hit the reset button" on the relationship.
"We need to figure a way to co-exist with them and figure out a way to work with them in the future on any project going forward, just sit down with them and see if there's a way to find some kind of common ground and work together," Keller said.
David Allbritton, a retired building contractor also running for Seat 4, punted the focus and said all property owners should work together.
"We also have two other big players in Clearwater that nobody seems to mention," Allbritton said, referring to private property owners and Pinellas County's real estate holdings. "The only thing you hear about is Scientology and they are buying up all the land, but that's not really the whole story."
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Hamilton, co-owner of the Palm Pavilion restaurant and inn, reiterated his earlier comment about cooperation and transparency, this time in response to the direct question about Scientology.
"The city and Scientology are the two largest property owners in downtown," Hamilton said. "We need cooperation with each other and we need to bring in the private property owners, as well, because collectively we can sit down and agree upon what we want downtown Clearwater and the final product to be."
Real estate broker John Funk, who is challenging Hamilton for Seat 5, changed the subject entirely.
"I think there's been a little bit of a diversion," Funk said. "A lot of time there's a focus on Scientology and that's not the reason some of these properties have not developed."
Funk pivoted to pitch an idea he has for the city to recruit a developer to convert a 10-acre cluster of privately owned properties along Drew Street into a boutique outlet mall with apartments.
Funk is the only candidate to receive campaign donations from prominent Scientology members like PostcardMania founder Joy Gendusa, Consumer Energy Solutions CEO Pat Clouden and cybersecurity training startup KnowBe4 owner Stu Sjouwerman, according to treasurer reports. He also received support from Mary Repper, a former political consultant who has done extensive public relations work for the church.
Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw said Tuesday that the church has "hopes and desires for a better Clearwater" but "the church is not involved with or interested in local politics and elections."
The impact of Scientology's growth also rarely arises in discussions about downtown initiatives to recruit businesses or the rollout of the city's $55 million waterfront redevelopment plan, Imagine Clearwater.
Mayor George Cretekos confirmed that city officials have no idea what Scientology plans to do with its recently purchased retail properties or how much more real estate it will buy for its campus. When asked why that variable is not brought up during downtown discussions, he said no church's plans dictate how the city operates.
"Whether the Church of Scientology, whether the Presbyterian or the Methodist church wants to be involved in helping us with that goal to revitalize downtown to the way the city thinks it should be done and not the individual church, that's the issue," he said. "The city is going to stay focused on revitalizing downtown to benefit the entire community."
Contact Tracey McManus at email@example.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.