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Dynamic of City Council meetings with Scientology leader a rarity

CLEARWATER — It's not unusual for an elected official to venture into the community to meet with a citizen, but a major organization summoning each city council member out from City Hall to lobby a single issue? That almost never happens.

In a rare dynamic where the constituent is beckoning each council member to his headquarters instead of going to theirs, Scientology leader David Miscavige will host individual meetings at the church's Fort Harrison Hotel on Tuesday to discuss his downtown retail strategy.

Miscavige has not announced plans for a presentation to the general public, prompting one council member to decline her private meeting.

The four who plan to visit Miscavige say it is their chance to learn more about the church's intentions for downtown and advocate for transparency.

"How can I express my opinions to (Miscavige) unless I have an opportunity to meet with him?" Mayor George Cretekos said.

City Council member Doreen Caudell initially accepted a private meeting with Miscavige when it was added to her calendar on Feb. 27. But after the Tampa Bay Times published an article Monday detailing the scope of Miscavige's plan, which involves the church controlling the downtown core, Caudell said she will not attend unless the public is included.

It was common knowledge the church had been working on a general plan to recruit retail for years, but City Council members said they did not know the extent of the church's vision to manage a business district until the Times report.

"I welcome Scientology to present their intended plan before us all at a public hearing," Caudell said. "We need transparency and communication."

Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Cretekos said "it's up to him whether he wants to make it public," but that he is going to urge Miscavige to include citizens in the process.

He said he is open to the idea of Scientology being in control of economic development if they can deliver a retail district that benefits the entire community, not just parishioners. Cretekos said Shaw told him two years ago that the church was recruiting a Whole Foods, but "here it is two years later, and I haven't seen a Whole Foods in downtown Clearwater."

"If Jeff Vinik were trying to buy up property and didn't want people to know he was buying property and he wanted to have a meeting, am I going to say no?" Cretekos said, referencing the Tampa Bay Lighting owner who launched a $2 billion redevelopment project in Tampa. "I'm not going to make a difference between a Jeff Vinik and a Church of Scientology until we see what the plans are, and then I'll make a determination if it's in the best interest of the city of Clearwater."

But the church's strategy does not require approval from the council or voters and is already being implemented. Along with the more than $260 million in property Scientology has acquired under its name since arriving in Clearwater in 1975, and later establishing its international spiritual headquarters downtown, the church has bought more than $26 million of property in the central core over the past several weeks through shell companies.

The concept involves recruiting a few major national retailers to anchor the district and filling the grid with handpicked businesses all at one time, similar to how an outdoor mall is established, said Community Redevelopment Agency director Seth Taylor and City Manager Bill Horne, who in October were shown renderings of the retail strategy by Miscavige.

Horne will be present for each council member's meeting with Miscavige.

"It's a comfort level that I think both sides want to have in the meeting," Horne said. "Everybody is quite frankly on their best behavior."

It is only the second time in Miscavige's 30 years leading Scientology that he has called for formal meetings with each elected official.

The first time was in July to emphasize the church's interest in a 1.4-acre lot across the street from City Hall that is owned by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. The City Council is expected to vote Thursday on whether to buy the land.

Horne said Miscavige will also present the retail plan to a group of select downtown business owners on Monday.

City Council member Hoyt Hamilton said he won't skip the meeting with Miscavige because city officials must keep open communication with downtown's largest landowner.

He said it's typical for an investor or business person to brief council members privately before presenting to the public, so Scientology should follow through with a transparent game plan.

"We can't take the property back, we don't have that ability," Hamilton said. "They technically don't even have to come to us to do what they want to do. So we've got to play the hand we're dealt. I have no problem telling Mr. Miscavige the church as the property owner needs to be transparent and work with the organizations that have already been established concerning the downtown."

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

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