Advertisement
  1. News

Clearwater City Council votes 5-0 to buy downtown parcel coveted by the Church of Scientology

Iracema Drysdale of Clearwater addresses the city council at Clearwater City Hall in Clearwater, Fla. on Thursday, April 20, 2017. "They take over the city," she said. Clearwater City Council voted Thursday on whether to buy the aquarium's 1.4 acre lot that the Church of Scientology also wants. The aquarium rejected the church's $15 million offer earlier this month in favor of selling it to the city for $4.25m.
Published Apr. 21, 2017

CLEARWATER — The City Council on Thursday voted unanimously to buy a vacant but high-profile downtown lot from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, intercepting a crucial piece of land the Church of Scientology said it needed for its campus.

A packed auditorium at City Hall greeted the 5-0 decision with applause.

Scientology leader David Miscavige had offered to bankroll a multi-million dollar revitalization of downtown if the city stepped aside and allowed the church to buy the lot, which borders its 13-story Oak Cove religious retreat. He pitched the idea last week to a select group of downtown stakeholders with help from Scientology celebrities like John Travolta, and was willing to pay more than three times what the city was offering.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Church of Scientology ups bid for Clearwater Marine Aquarium land to $15 million

EDITORIAL: Clearwater City Council should stand up to Church of Scientology

But council members said the 1.4-acre property at the corner of Pierce Street and Osceola Avenue is needed for the city's 10-year, $55 million overhaul of the waterfront and Coachman Park. City staff said it could be coupled with the City Hall site across the street and redeveloped into a hotel, condos and apartments, retail or other uses.

"Will the city be able to guide the use of that property for the good of all of Clearwater? To me that's the most critical question, to which my answer would be yes," City Council member Bob Cundiff said.

About 200 people gathered in City Hall for the discussion. While roughly 25 people lined up to speak in favor of the city buying the land, only four spoke against the purchase.

"I feel the city is slowly losing control of the city's destiny, and it's going to the Church of Scientology," resident Bob Holsinger said. "I feel this issue tonight is also a symbolic issue."

The city will pay $4.25 million for the property and allow the aquarium to continue using the space for parking while it renovates its facility across the Intracoastal on Island Estates. That project could take two years.

The church wanted the land to build a pool, playground and other accommodations for parishioners staying at the Oak Cove.

Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw has made clear that Miscavige's proposed retail development hinged on the church's ability to buy the aquarium land. In private meetings with City Council members last month, Miscavige described funding a facade overhaul for Cleveland Street, recruiting high-end retailers to empty storefronts, and building an entertainment complex on Myrtle Avenue with actor Tom Cruise.

Shaw declined to comment Thursday on the church's next steps. The council's vote raises a number of questions, including: What will Scientology do with the $26 million in downtown real estate, including the landmark Atrium office tower, it has purchased since January in anticipation of its retail plan? And will its retail proposal go away entirely or evolve?

In a letter to the Tampa Bay Times on Monday, Shaw blasted the city as "arrogant" for wanting to keep the aquarium land out of the church's hands, calling it "manifest obstruction" and a statement by City Hall that Scientologists are second-class citizens.

At the time, the city's position was becoming clear even before the official vote, with three of the five council members saying they supported buying the land.

"Whose votes do not count? Whose money does not count?" Shaw asked. "The bigotry against Scientologists is barefaced."

In denying the church the land it wanted, the council "apparently believes (Scientologists) are not deserving of a swimming pool and other amenities for their children," Shaw wrote.

City residents who attended Thursday night's meeting spoke about the overwhelming presence Scientology has downtown and its effect on economic development since the church arrived in 1975.

"I recognize that the Scientologists are a part of this community," said resident April Robinson. "The difference is that we have no issue with them being a part of our community, using and enjoying our mutually beneficial amenities. They are the ones that want us out."

Resident Martin Hughes, however, said it was a mistake to throw away the church's offer to revitalize downtown and questioned the motives of the city in buying the land.

"We have an economic entity whose willingness to be a partner in and with our great city is being questioned, I suspect, in part due to a difference in their world view and perceived dearth of development disclosure," Hughes said.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium CEO David Yates has said the nonprofit has always been committed to selling to the city because the two are partners in the community.

"I think everybody's hope and desire is the city can move ahead with a strong master plan to really revitalize downtown," Yates said. "It's an amazing area, beautiful area, so I think this is a good first step."

Council member Bill Jonson described the fierce opinions that have come in over the last several weeks on this issue, and held up a thick binder of comments he's received from both sides.

Mayor George Cretekos said the purchase of the land ties into the future of the waterfront and the fate of the city's 10-year waterfront redevelopment plan. Referencing the city's upbeat motto, he said religion doesn't play a factor — and shouldn't going forward.

"All of us, whether we are Scientologists, whether we are Presbyterian, Methodist, Jewish, Muslim, or in my case, Greek Orthodox, we will be able to celebrate a Clearwater that truly is 'Bright and Beautiful Bay to the Beach.'"

Times Staff Writer Laura C. Morel contributed to this report. Contact Tracey McManus at tmcmanus@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Authorities found 29-year-old Sharee Bradley stabbed to death on Aug. 5. The chief says she had three children; the 12-year-old and 3-year-old were found safe, but Nevaeh had disappeared. Sumter Police Department/Facebook
    DNA from the remains found Friday has been matched to Nevaeh Adams, Sumter Police Chief Russell Roark told reporters.
  2. Cars back up at a Tampa intersection last October, not long before Hillsborough County voters approved a one-cent sales tax for transportation improvements. This week, local officials detailed how the money would be spent, if the tax survives a legal challenge before the Florida Supreme Court. URSO, CHRIS  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Local governments have plans for $527 million in projects. But the Florida Supreme Court would need to clear the way.
  3. FILE - In this Sunday, April 22, 2018, file photo, a statue of a chained man is on display at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a new memorial to honor thousands of people killed in racist lynchings, in Montgomery, Ala. Facing an impeachment inquiry that he and supporters claim is illegal, President Donald Trump tweeted Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2019, that the process is a lynching. Some Republicans agree, but the relatives of actual lynching victims don’t. BRYNN ANDERSON  |  AP
    Made in a tweet that drew backing from some Republican supporters including Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Trump’s claim was ill-informed at best and racist at worst, they said.
  4. Check tampabay.com for the latest breaking news and updates. Tampa Bay Times
    Damien Wiggins Jr. was found with a gunshot wound in the parking lot of a vacant business on Haines Road.
  5. FILE - In this Aug. 15, 2018 file photo, Florida school shooting suspect Nikolas Cruz listens during a status check on his case at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. As his death penalty trial draws closer, a hearing is set for school shooting defendant Cruz in the 2018 massacre that killed 17 people. The hearing Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019, likely concerns the setting of timelines leading up to the planned January trial of the 21-year-old Cruz. AMY BETH BENNETT  |  AP
    The hearing Wednesday likely concerns the setting of timelines leading up to the planned January trial of the 21-year-old Cruz.
  6. FILE - This undated file photo released by the FBI shows 3-year-old Kamille McKinney, who police say has been missing since she was abducted while attending a birthday party on Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019, in Birmingham, Ala. Investigators searching through garbage found the body of McKinney, who was missing more than a week, and authorities are charging two people with murder, police said Tuesday, Oct. 22. AP
    The child, known as “Cupcake” to relatives, vanished while outside a birthday party on Oct. 12. Investigators know of no link between the suspects and the girl or her family, police say.
  7. An aerial view as police forensic officers attend the scene after a truck was found to contain a large number of dead bodies, in Thurock, South England, early Wednesday Oct. 23, 2019. Police in southeastern England said that 39 people were found dead Wednesday inside a truck container believed to have come from Bulgaria. UK POOL  |  AP
    “We are in the process of identifying the victims, however, I anticipate that this could be a lengthy process," Essex Police Chief Superintendent Andrew Mariner said.
  8. A top U.S. diplomat, William Taylor, departs the Capitol after testifying in the Democrats' impeachment investigation of President Donald Trump, in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2019. J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE  |  AP
    Democrats said they were shocked and disturbed by what they heard. A look at the key takeaways from Taylor’s statement, which was obtained by The Associated Press.
  9. A Florida black bear (not this one) was found at a Marion County school and removed. CARLTON WARD JR  |  Carlton Ward Jr
    A roundup of stories from around the state.
  10. Weeki Wachee Springs main entrance VAUGHN HUGHES  |  Tampa Bay Times
    From its iconic mermaids to its signature statue, Weeki Wachee Springs will be considered for historic designation.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement