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Downtown Clearwater businesses get extra layer of storm protection from Church of Scientology

Scientology volunteers boarded up businesses in downtown Clearwater before the storm. TRACEY McMANUS / Times
Scientology volunteers boarded up businesses in downtown Clearwater before the storm. TRACEY McMANUS / Times
Published Sep. 13, 2017

CLEARWATER

Alessio Zavaglia stopped by his Cleveland Street Cafe late Saturday night to do one last walk-through before Hurricane Irma's landfall.

As he approached the building, there were strangers with gloves and hammers boarding up the storefront's glass windows.

He wasn't expecting it, but the Church of Scientology had come to secure his business before the forecasted Category 4 winds. And within 12 hours, Scientology volunteers boarded every other storefront in the downtown district too.

"No one asked them to do this," said Zavaglia, who said he couldn't find any plywood Saturday to do it himself. "This is good for the city."

Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw said church volunteers spent 1,500 staff hours over a 12-hour period securing 60 downtown businesses with 700 sheets of plywood.

"When Irma changed direction on Saturday, we became very concerned about downtown and that property owners would have little time to prepare," Shaw said. "Luckily, we had placed orders for all the plywood we could get and, just in time, a huge shipment arrived from Georgia. With that, we were able to board up every one of the downtown businesses."

Scientology owns $207 million of real estate under its name in Clearwater, most of it downtown. Ownership of the remaining buildings and businesses are a mix of parishioners and non-Scientologists.

Kathy Panagoulias, who owns vacant storefront on the 500 block of Cleveland Street, said a church member called her for permission to board her building after she had evacuated to Orlando with family.

"It was wonderful," she said.

Shaw said volunteers also supplied food and hygiene products to various emergency shelters throughout the county.

Volunteers also deployed downtown Monday morning, after Irma passed, with garbage bags and gloves and cleared tree limbs and debris from the streets and removed the plywood from windows.

By Monday evening, the downtown district looked nearly as tidy as it did before the Category 2 Irma rolled through.

Earlier this year, Scientology leader David Miscavige proposed a different spruce-up of downtown by offering to bankroll a façade renovation of all buildings along Cleveland Street and recruit high-end retail to empty storefronts. But he rescinded the offer after the city purchased a 1.4 acre vacant lot on Pierce Street that the church also wanted. Miscavige had hinged the downtown renovation on his ability to purchase the Pierce Street lot.

Mayor George Cretekos said he wasn't warned the church intended to board the businesses before the hurricane, but he suspected Scientology was involved when he drove through downtown Sunday morning before Irma hit and saw the symmetrical handiwork of the plywood on storefronts.

"I commend them for it," Cretekos said. "I also applaud all those who are first responders and our staff and their families."

Tony Starova said he got a call Thursday from the Church of Scientology, asking if he needed any help preparing his downtown pizza shop for Hurricane Irma.

At that point, Starova said he wasn't worried about Irma's path and had no intention to board up his glass storefront on Cleveland Street. He just asked if the church had any spare sandbags.

Starova evacuated to New Orleans Friday with his family when Irma's path shifted toward Tampa Bay and called a neighbor Saturday to check on downtown.

"I called and he told me every business had been boarded up," Starova said. "The church of Scientology did it. It's being very good neighbor. Good stewards."

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

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