Decades in the making, the Church of Scientology and its followers have accelerated their takeover of downtown Clearwater with a quiet, methodical expansion of their property holdings. This is a pivotal moment for the city, and it should not be stampeded into a full surrender. Planning should continue for an ambitious downtown waterfront project and the redevelopment of publicly owned property, and there will be time to re-evaluate and reflect after the city elections next spring.
In an extraordinary Tampa Bay Times investigation, the Times’ Tracey McManus detailed how Scientology and its members quietly acquired retail property at an unprecedented rate in the last three years and doubled their footprint. The church, its followers and companies they control now own 185 properties covering more than 100 downtown acres. Half of the properties were bought since January 2017, and the timing is no coincidence.
Scientology’s land grab is clearly an orchestrated response to the city’s pursuit of downtown development plans that could dilute the church’s overwhelming presence. That includes the proposed $64 million Imagine Clearwater project along the waterfront and the redevelopment of publicly owned adjacent sites along the bluff, such as the former City Hall. The church stopped communicating with the city after the City Council voted unanimously in 2017 to buy a lot from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium for less than one-third the amount offered by Scientology. So much for cooperation that church leaders have been promising off and on for decades but rarely deliver.
Now the extent of Scientology’s sweeping expansion has been exposed. As the Times reported, sellers said most of the transactions involved a broker who was a Scientologist approaching a downtown property owner and making a cash offer. Many of the properties were not on the market. Half of the sales were for more than double the value of the properties set by the county property appraiser. In six cases, the Times found, buyers paid four times the property’s value.
Need more evidence suggesting this was a coordinated effort by Scientology and its followers? Nearly all of the properties were bought through limited liability companies, which are required to disclose their operators but not their owners. So it’s impossible to know whether the properties are actually owned by the church or someone else. Asked directly whether Scientology orchestrated or paid for any of the sales, the church did not answer. That silence is more revealing than the church’s dubious claims that it does not know how many properties are owned by Scientologists, or its predictable attacks on the Times.
The Church of Scientology has resorted to a variety of intimidation tactics since it secretly bought downtown Clearwater’s Fort Harrison Hotel in 1975, and this is only its latest attempt to scare away everyone else. Yet the reality is the church and its followers now control much of downtown and appear to be holding it hostage, with many of the new acquisitions remaining vacant lots or empty storefronts. The city government cannot prevent sales of private property, and it’s understandable that the first inclination by city officials and residents may be to immediately surrender, scrap all of the downtown waterfront redevelopment plans and fully retreat. That would be a mistake.
Let’s remember that Clearwater voters approved a 2017 referendum on the Imagine Clearwater plan for the city’s 66-acre waterfront, which are expected to include a new garden, a lake under the Memorial Causeway and a gateway plaza with waterfront features. Let’s remember that the City Council is moving forward on studying a plan endorsed by Ruth Eckerd Hall officials for 4,000 covered seats for a concert pavilion that would offer a unique space in Tampa Bay and be a regional draw. Let’s remember the city still controls the City Hall site and the former Harborview Center site on the bluff, which are ripe for redevelopment. There remains enormous potential for Clearwater to reclaim its waterfront for the enjoyment of all, regardless of whether the Church of Scientology cooperates.
Here’s another question: Who believes the Church of Scientology and its followers will stop acquiring property if the city gives up on downtown? Companies controlled by a Scientologist bought a marina and six nearby properties last year just north of the downtown core. There are no guarantees of anything with the Church of Scientology -- except that the church comes first and any questions about its intentions or motives are frowned upon.
Clearwater voters will elect a new mayor and at least one new City Council member next spring. The city also will hire a new city manager next year to replace long-time City Manager Bill Horne, who is retiring. And city staff and consultants are still roughing out details and firmer cost estimates on the Imagine Clearwater plan. Let that work move forward, and a fresh set of eyes can make a fresh assessment next spring. Then the city and its residents can determine whether the most prudent approach for future generations is to proceed with a significant public investment along the downtown waterfront -- or cede the entire area to the occupying force that is the Church of Scientology.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.