Ruth: Aquarium could have offset Church of Scientology in Clearwater

Published May 7, 2015

It is a telling commentary on downtown Clearwater's desire to be known as something other than the silly make-believe navy sailor suit capital of the world that the city's fathers found themselves relying on a famous dolphin to blunt the influence of the Church of Scientology.

Close, but no bottlenose.

And so it came to pass that the Clearwater Marine Aquarium pulled the plug on ambitious plans to build a $68 million facility on the downtown bluff overlooking Clearwater Harbor as a new home for international film star Winter the Dolphin and her pal, Hope.

What seems to have scuttled the project is that aquarium supporters were not going to be able to meet their fundraising goals in a fairly short time frame to push the effort forward.

To be sure, given the success of Dolphin Tale, a movie based on the rescue of a tailless dolphin and her recovery wearing a prosthetic fin, put the aquarium on the map and led to more visitors to the facility's present, modest home on Island Estates. It was perfectly natural for the city to want to capitalize on her image to lure more visitors to the area.

And since Winter is estimated to be about 9 years old, she could have as much as 20 more years of life before the aquarium would be forced to — ahem, cough, cough — find another equally handicapped dolphin to take her place in the fish tank.

There are plenty of reasons the fundraising was difficult. Raising millions is never an easy task. And the region is awash in various competing aquatic attractions, most notably the Florida Aquarium in Tampa.

And let's all acknowledge the 800-pound Operating Thetan in the room that the massive presence of a mysterious, controversial "religious" organization in the middle of Clearwater certainly had to give many potential, deep-pocketed donors pause.

The Clearwater Marine Aquarium's master plan was much more about enhancing a tourist destination. Mayor George Cretekos never has been shy in expressing his misgivings regarding the long, dark shadow Scientology casts over the city's life.

Cretekos and the rest of Clearwater's leaders were hoping for a dolphin to take back a semblance of normality. And it's noteworthy the Scientologists, who will never win any awards for being good corporate citizens, opposed the aquarium's move to downtown. Think of the city's predicament, which is like having to share your house with a narcissistic brother-in-law who never offers to share in the chores and drinks all your liquor.

And to take on Scientology's grip on Clearwater, the city and aquarium were going to rely on a cutsie-wootsie dolphin to slay the e-meter-ites?

A few months ago, Cretekos wondered aloud if maybe, just maybe, the time was approaching to reconsider where downtown Clearwater really ought to be, to in effect simply recognize the reality that Scientology has prevailed in acquiring most of the city's core. But not its heart.

That's not only a tough call. You might say it's the $68 million question.