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Scientology leader meets one-on-one with city officials over key downtown Clearwater parcel

Officials for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium say the Church of Scientology has offered them $4.25 million for a key piece of property on the downtown waterfront. The city of Clearwater, meanwhile, is interested in exploring other uses for the vacant property. The undeveloped land, pictured here, sits between Clearwater City Hall in the foreground and the church's 13-story Oak Cove building seen just to the south. [JIM DAMASKE | Times]

Published Jul. 7, 2016

CLEARWATER — Scientology leader David Miscavige has met one-on-one with each City Council member to discuss a key piece of waterfront land — the first gesture of its kind in the decades-long struggle between the Church of Scientology and the city over downtown real estate.

In hourlong meetings held Friday and Wednesday at City Hall, Miscavige updated council members on the organization's activities around the world and emphasized its interest in three parcels on the southwest corner of Pierce Street and Osceola Avenue. Together they form a vacant, grassy lot owned by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

The city, however, also has its eye on the property, having hired consultants to include it in a master plan currently under way to help revitalize the downtown waterfront. The 1.4-acre lot, now used for overflow parking, sits between City Hall on the north and the church's 13-story Oak Cove religious retreat on the south.

Although the city has not yet submitted an offer to the aquarium, the church approached the nonprofit several months ago with a $4.25 million offer and tentative plans to convert it into a "passive park," aquarium executive vice president Frank Dame confirmed on Wednesday. Property records show the aquarium bought the property in 2012 for $2.1 million.

In an email response to the Tampa Bay Times, the church stated: "There are no plans to turn it into a park but rather to fully develop the property for visiting parishioners, which would also result in an increase of the tax rolls."

Mayor George Cretekos and other council members said Miscavige mentioned a potential "open space" in his meetings with them. The fear, according to Cretekos, is the church would end up using the land for religious purposes, thereby exempting it from paying taxes.

"We want to make sure that property has its best use and will benefit the entire city," the mayor said. "But by the same token … I doubt my colleagues would want to get into a bidding war with the church or anybody else for that matter. It's up to the aquarium to decide what is in its best interest and in the community's best interest."

City Manager Bill Horne, citing ongoing negotiations, would not comment on whether the city would match the church's offer, but any purchase would have to be approved by the City Council.

Though many of its properties are exempt from taxes, the church is still the largest taxpayer in downtown Clearwater because of hotels and other spaces that are not used for religious purposes. Still, Scientology is continuing to expand its real estate footprint at a time when the city is working to revitalize the sleepy urban core and bring more retail, residential, restaurants and other business uses.

"That's where we have a conflict with the church," Cretekos said, adding his Friday meeting was the first one-on-one sit-down he has had with Miscavige in almost 10 years on the council.

Horne, who sat in on all five meetings, said the conversations were cordial and lived up to recommendations made by Urban Land Institute consultants in 2014 that the city and church should improve communication. Miscavige also mingled with city officials at the July 4 celebration in Coachman Park, the first time the leader has visited the city's annual event, Horne said.

In their statement to the Times, church officials also pointed to the evolving relationship with the city.

"The Church is further committed to the revitalization of all of downtown Clearwater, and pursuant to the ULI (Urban Land Institute) study, the Church is following their recommendation to take an active and cooperative role in assisting the City in accomplishing that objective," the statement said.

Council member Doreen Caudell said the city has long coveted the prime waterfront lot, but it is vital officials wait to see the consultants' final bluff master plan document, due by December, before deciding on a purchase of the property.

Potential city uses for the lot have ranged from a parking garage to a hotel or retail space. And a church purchase could be a lost opportunity for those public uses.

"It's obviously a vital piece of property if we're all in the conversation," Caudell said. "But the last thing we'd want to do is make a sudden move just because someone came to town. We're elected to have a responsibility to the citizens, and we really have to look at the highest and best use."

The aquarium, which is across the Intracoastal Waterway on Island Estates, bought the downtown lot in 2012 as part of its plan to relocate to the current City Hall property. Since that plan fell through and the aquarium decided to renovate its current location instead, Dame said the nonprofit doesn't have much need for the space.

The aquarium is currently fundraising for the $53 million renovation on Island Estates, but Dame said there is no deadline to sell the downtown property.

"It's not just the price thing, we've got a lot of considerations here," Dame said, declining to elaborate.

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

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