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Scientology leader David Miscavige ups offer for aquarium property before Clearwater vote on land deal

CLEARWATER — The city may be poised to vote next month on whether to buy a vacant downtown lot from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, but that hasn't stopped the Church of Scientology from trying to acquire the property.

The church has upped its standing offer for the property and threw in a "sizable donation" to sweeten the deal, spokesman Ben Shaw confirmed Wednesday. He declined to disclose the church's new offer but said in a statement that it "far exceeds what the city can pay."

The City Council is scheduled to vote on its $4.25 million deal April 20.

Shaw called the new bid a win for all: The aquarium would receive a substantial amount for its property and the donation; the city would not have to expend taxpayer dollars; and the church would be able to build a swimming pool and amenities for its members at the adjacent Oak Cove religious retreat.

Aquarium CEO David Yates said even though Scientology leader David Miscavige has raised the stakes on the land deal, it has not shaken the nonprofit's commitment to sell to the city.

"We don't have an intention of breaking the offer with the city," Yates said, declining to disclose the church's offer amount. "We've been talking to the city about buying the property for the past year and a half now. We could get an offer from five other organizations and it wouldn't matter."

Yates said if the aquarium pivoted and sold to the church, it could expose the nonprofit to litigation.

Mayor George Cretekos said he has not discussed that scenario with the city attorney, but Cretekos said he wasn't sure if the city would sue the aquarium if the deal fell through. That decision would have to be made by the City Council.

"The aquarium has been an important part of the city of Clearwater," Cretekos said. "I would have to think real long and hard before I'd want to sue the aquarium."

The City Council was scheduled to vote on the purchase March 16. But City Attorney Pam Akin realized on March 10 that the meeting was not properly advertised, requiring the vote to be moved to April 20. The new offer from Miscavige's attorney arrived hours later, around 1 a.m. March 11, Yates said.

Then on March 14, Miscavige held individual meetings with four of the five City Council members to describe retail and entertainment development he is planning for downtown.

The Scientology leader briefed them on the church's plans to bankroll a facade overhaul of Cleveland Street and recruit high-end retail to fill empty storefronts. But he insinuated it hinged on the church's ability to buy the aquarium property, City Council member Hoyt Hamilton said afterward.

Consultants who designed the city's 10-year, $55 million waterfront redevelopment plan included the aquarium lot as property the city should ensure meets "the community's vision and productively contribute to downtown." It sits across the street from City Hall along a strip of Osceola Avenue that consultants said the city could redevelop as a public space to benefit the downtown and waterfront.

Council members said Miscavige showed them a video of a swimming pool, playground, garden and possibly another hotel on the aquarium lot — but just for parishioners, not the public.

Aside from those private discussions, Miscavige has not presented the downtown redevelopment plan to the public. Shaw said the plans are being finalized and are "for the benefit of downtown and do not include the church controlling or managing downtown retail establishments."

Miscavige first offered the aquarium $4.25 million for the lot in 2015, but Yates said the nonprofit held off to give the city time to complete its waterfront redevelopment plan and decide if it wanted the first option to buy.

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

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