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Imagining a new downtown Clearwater | Editorial

There are signs of progress this month, including a meeting with Church of Scientology leader David Miscavige.

After decades of decline, downtown Clearwater could be on the brink of re-inventing itself. Several promising signs of progress have popped up this month, positioning the city for significant steps forward in 2020 as a new mayor and a new city manager come on board. One of those significant steps is renewed communication between the city and the Church of Scientology, which is key to the long-term success of redevelopment of the downtown area largely controlled by the church and its followers.

As the Tampa Bay Times’ Tracey McManus and Kirby Wilson reported Tuesday, Church of Scientology leader David Miscavige met privately this month with three top city officials. It was the first face-to-face meeting between city government and Scientology in nearly three years. Decades of dealing with the church have taught the community to be cautious and skeptical. But an open line of communication is better than a cold war.

Of course, the Church of Scientology has not made it easy. A Times investigation published last month detailed how Scientology and its followers quietly acquired retail property at an unprecedented rate in the last three years and doubled their footprint. As the Times reported, many of the properties were not on the market and half of the sales were for more than double the value of the properties set by the county property appraiser. The land rush occurred as the church stopped communicating with the city after the City Council voted unanimously in 2017 to buy a downtown lot from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium for less than one-third the amount offered by Scientology.

It’s unlikely a coincidence that Miscavige sought to reconnect with city officials after Times’ report about the extent of Scientology’s land purchases, made primarily through limited liability companies that are not required to disclose their owners. Regardless of the motivation, the meeting between Miscavige and city officials that was described as primarily an ice-breaker could open the door for further conversations that could benefit everyone in the long run. It also indicates the city has been smart to continue to pursue its plans for the redevelopment of the downtown waterfront and reaffirm it has no intention of surrendering downtown to the church.

Just last week, the City Council took a big step forward on the waterfront project, Imagine Clearwater, by voting to authorize up to $30 million in city bonds to pay for much of the $64 million cost. City voters approved the Imagine Clearwater concept in 2017, which includes a dramatic redesign of Coachman Park, a gateway plaza, renovation of the main library along the downtown bluff and a covered concert pavilion that could be a regional draw.

Here’s another intriguing development: Trish Duggan, Scientology’s top donor, is interested in transforming the former Clearwater City Hall along the bluff into a museum for her world-class glass art collection. It may turn out that the city owned property could be put to another intriguing use besides a museum. But Duggan’s interest reflects the value of that site, and she should not be discounted because of her affiliation with Scientology.

This is a positive moment for Clearwater. The Imagine Clearwater plans are moving ahead, and the city will start a series of public meetings next week to unveil updated design plans. The entire redevelopment effort should get a full airing during the campaigns for mayor and City Council before the March election. Now the Church of Scientology has re-established a line of communication with the city. Keep moving forward.

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.

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