CLEARWATER — The third time was the charm for the city to close a long-debated real estate deal with the Church of Scientology.
After two previous deals were scuttled over more than a year of negotiations, the City Council voted 3-1 on Thursday night to give Scientology three small downtown properties in exchange for a vacant parking lot on Cleveland Street.
City Council member Hoyt Hamilton voted in opposition and Vice Mayor Doreen Caudell was absent.
The city plans to use its newly acquired lot, adjacent to the Nolen apartments at 949 Cleveland Street, as retail parking for businesses. Community Redevelopment Agency Director Amanda Thompson said the space was critical to recruit commercial tenants at the Nolen — which has struggled without a retail parking lot — and for the 15-story high-rise under construction across the street.
Scientology will acquire the former fire marshal building at 600 Franklin St., seven parking spaces at S Garden Avenue and Court Street, and nine parking spaces on Watterson Avenue.
The vacant lot the city will receive is worth $185,000 more than the three properties it's giving up, according to the most recent appraisals.
The Franklin Street property and the Court Street parking spaces surround the footprint of Scientology's proposed L. Ron Hubbard Hall auditorium.
Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw did not respond to a request for comment Thursday or previous questions about the church's intention for the Watterson Avenue spaces, which are four blocks north of the other two properties.
Hamilton said although the city would be gaining higher valued property in the deal, he is uncomfortable doing business with Scientology since church officials have almost completely stopped communicating with city officials.
The city is working to revitalize downtown with restaurants, retail and a reshaped waterfront park. But Hamilton said Scientology is "not showing they are interested in the same things the people of Clearwater are."
"I would love for Scientology to prove me wrong when I say I'm not sure that's what they want to see," he said. "I would welcome them to prove me wrong and show that I'm wrong.
"But because of the fact they're not communicating with us right now, I'm not inclined to move forward with this land swap."
City Council member David Allbritton said he supported following through with the swap because last year the city requested that Scientology buy the Cleveland Street lot to then trade for the city properties. The church held up its end of the bargain, he said, but so far the city had not.
"If you tell somebody to do something, you ought to follow through on it," he said. "It's really simple to me."
The City Council first turned down the land swap in June by a 4-1 vote, with Council member voting Bob Cundiff in opposition. Before the vote, engineering staff questioned — months after negotiations had already started — whether the city might need the three parcels in the future. At that time, Allbritton was not in office and then-council member Bill Jonson filled the Seat 4 slot on the council.
The proposal returned to the council in April after city staff cited an urgent need to acquire it for parking.
It died again when no one seconded a motion by Cundiff to declare the three city-owned properties surplus. Because they did not take that step, the contract for the land swap did not even get to a vote.
Allbritton, elected in March, later said he was confused about the process and did not understand that if the properties were not declared surplus he could not make a motion to reschedule the vote on the contract.
He said he was in favor of the swap but wanted more time to study the details. He requested the deal be placed on Thursday's agenda for a third vote.
Allbritton also disagreed with Hamilton, stating he felt Scientology does desire a thriving downtown, just as the city does.
He considered the land swap a step towards that shared goal.
"I think they want to see a vibrant downtown as much as we do, but they can't do it themselves and we can't do it by ourselves," Allbritton said. "It's been years and years that we've been butting heads with the church, and I think this may be the first step in trying to get this done together."
Contact Tracey McManus at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.