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Scientology leader to visit Clearwater officials a week before vote on property purchase

A 1998 photo of David Miscavige (Times files)
A 1998 photo of David Miscavige (Times files)
Published Mar. 2, 2017

CLEARWATER — In three decades as the Church of Scientology's leader, only one time has David Miscavige ever held formal meetings with all five City Council members.

It was in July, to emphasize the church's interest in a 1.4-acre vacant lot across the street from City Hall that is owned by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

Now, in advance of the City Council's March 16 vote to buy the property, Miscavige has called for meetings with elected officials for a second time.

Miscavige is scheduled to meet with council members individually on Tuesday and Wednesday at the church's Fort Harrison Hotel, and City Manager Bill Horne said he will be present for each talk. Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw did not return an email or phone call requesting comment, but Horne said he expects the focus to be on the aquarium property and the church's retail strategy for downtown.

"Miscavige has really taken the lead in this whole retail recruitment piece," Horne said. "He told the council the last time he saw them he was working on some things and he would get back to them once he was able to have something more definitive. This is a follow-through. But the timing is pretty obvious why it's coming now."

The church in 2015 offered the aquarium $4.25 million for the lot at the corner of Osceola Avenue and Pierce Street, which is adjacent to the church's 13-story Oak Cove religious retreat and across the street from its Fort Harrison Hotel.

In a statement to the Tampa Bay Times last month, Shaw said the church wanted the property "to provide additional accommodations for our parishioners."

Since arriving in Clearwater in 1975, Scientology has made downtown its international spiritual headquarters and acquired more than $260 million worth of real estate.

Although Shaw told the Times that the church "has no further plans to expand our campus downtown," an anonymous buyer over the past month acquired the city's largest office tower and a nearby auto garage through shell companies, prompting elected officials to assume the church is involved.

It comes as the city is in the midst of implementing a 10-year, $55 million revitalization plan to revive its waterfront and downtown core to fill vacant storefronts and bring in consistent foot traffic.

Aquarium CEO David Yates said that, as of Wednesday, Miscavige has not arranged a meeting with him for next week.

But Yates said he approved the $4.25 million draft purchase contract on Wednesday, finalizing the aquarium's decision to sell to the city.

"As far as we're concerned, it's done," Yates said. "No matter who comes to us with an offer, we've committed to the city we're going to sell them the property."

Despite the offer from the church in 2015, the aquarium was holding off on selling the downtown lot until city consultants presented the revitalization plan last month, which did not suggest specific uses for the site.

The council directed the city attorney on Feb. 21 to draft a purchase agreement with the aquarium, but Vice Mayor Bill Jonson and City Council member Bob Cundiff said Wednesday that they have not yet decided if they will vote to buy the property.

City Council member Hoyt Hamilton said the purchase would be vital for the economic development of downtown so the city could determine the best use of the property, which borders the Coachman Park and Bluff redevelopment outline.

Hamilton said he's been given no information about Miscavige's retail strategy and he is not clear about the church's plan for its future growth.

"We need to try to work together, but working together means being open and transparent in what we do," Hamilton said. "Everybody requires the government to do that. When we try to do something and it's not open and transparent, we get absolutely lit up over that. Whereas the church doesn't always operate that way and historically hasn't operated that way. If this is going to be a partnership, they have to be open."

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