CLEARWATER — There's been a glaring shift in the everyday image that has defined the city's downtown for decades.
The small army of uniformed Scientologists who bustle all day between church buildings and file on and off the church's Flag buses is nowhere in sight.
While Sea Org staff members in their distinctive slacks and buttoned vests sometimes outnumber the general public, there were nearly none on Cleveland Street shortly after 9 Thursday morning.
After the city's recent purchase of a 1.4-acre vacant lot coveted by the church, Scientology this week enacted an apparent boycott of downtown, instructing Sea Org staff not to patronize shops on Cleveland Street, according to Community Redevelopment Agency director Seth Taylor.
"We started hearing from merchants earlier this week that they noticed a slow down in business, and they heard from Sea Org members they were instructed not to patronize Cleveland Street," Taylor said. "It seems to be the mom and pops that are suffering the most."
Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw said in a statement to the Times that "there is absolutely not any boycott of downtown by either staff or parishioners" and that the church has received queries in the past few months about whether staff could wear a different uniform or none at all.
Shaw said the constant complaints about the uniforms are "frustrating," and the church wants to avoid any cause for complaints.
"We wish to avoid doing anything that would upset anybody," Shaw said. "If you don't recognize staff, it is because they aren't in uniform when frequenting downtown.''
Lina Teixeira, owner of Studio 617 on Cleveland Street, said at Wednesday's Downtown Development Board meeting that merchants "are feeling under duress" as a result of the church's "boycott."
She said parishioners told her the church is reacting to recent complaints that uniformed Sea Org staffers' conspicuous presence discourages the general public from coming downtown.
RELATED STORY: Clearwater City Council votes 5-0 to buy downtown parcel coveted by the Church of Scientology
"The fact remains we are the collateral damage," Teixeira said about the effect on local businesses.
Mayor George Cretekos said he is not aware of any city official asking church leaders to discontinue uniforms but said the impact the Sea Org's visual presence has on downtown's vibe has been discussed over the years.
Cretekos said visitors who are not familiar with the religious garb "think it is a military presence" in Clearwater. He said it would be unfortunate if the church has instructed parishioners to avoid downtown to make a statement to city officials.
"This is not a good way of building bridges,'' Cretekos said.
The City Council voted unanimously April 20 to buy a 1.4-acre vacant lot from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium for $4.25 million. The vote came weeks after the aquarium rejected Scientology leader David Miscavige's $15 million offer for the property in favor of selling to the city.
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In private meetings with council members in March, Miscavige offered to bankroll a facade overhaul of Cleveland Street buildings, recruit high end retailers to empty storefronts, and launch an entertainment complex with a bowling alley and theater with Tom Cruise, on the condition the city step aside and allow him to buy the lot.
Miscavige said he wanted the lot, which borders the church's 13-story Oak Cove religious retreat, to build a swimming pool and playground for parishioners.
The city bought the land to pair it with the City Hall site across the street and redevelop the properties into a hotel, condo or other uses.
On April 24, the church delivered a formal complaint and 300 pages of opposition research criticizing the aquarium's financial and ethical practices to state officials and the Pinellas County Commission. The complaint came one day before the county gave initial approval to the aquarium's request for $26 million of tourist tax dollars.
"The timing of this speaks for itself, and it's pretty evident that if, in fact, they have been instructed not to patronize downtown businesses, this would be a response to the property purchase," Taylor said. "I'd like to put a message out saying downtown is open for everyone. Speaking on behalf of the business community, I know they would say everyone is welcome to shop and patronize downtown."
Katherine Kondrotas, a Scientology parishioner and owner of Endless Treasures on Cleveland Street, said the church would never instruct staff to avoid downtown in order to hurt businesses. It was a response, she said, to unfair complaints about the visual impact of Sea Org uniforms.
"I feel sometimes (the church) is used as an excuse of why the city isn't doing well, when the city has issues," Kondrotas said. "It's a finger pointing."
Tony's Pizza owner Tony Starova said he had a busy lunch crowd Thursday but it did not include any of the typical uniformed Sea Org customers.
He said Scientologists are welcome downtown, and at the same time, they should support the businesses like the general public does.
"(Uniformed Scientologists) are only like 5 or 6 percent of normal business at lunch," Starova said. "It's not that they are impactful enough to close my business. There might be other businesses totally dependent on the church, and I feel sorry for them."
Contact Tracey McManus at email@example.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.