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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Church of Scientology cannot veto Clearwater Aquarium project

Quietly trying to undermine a voter-approved plan for relocating the Clearwater Marine Aquarium to a prime downtown site is no way for the Church of Scientology to build more positive relationships with local government and the broader community. But once again Clearwater's largest downtown private landholder appears to be trying to circumvent the public process to get what it wants and ignore the city's larger needs. Whether Pinellas County bed taxes should support the aquarium's relocation should be decided on the merits, not the wishes of the Scientologists who already dominate downtown Clearwater.

As the Tampa Bay Times reported last week, Scientology representatives have been meeting with Pinellas County commissioners individually and delivering a clear message: They don't support the aquarium's relocation from Island Estates to the downtown bluff where City Hall sits, and they oppose the county spending bed taxes for that cause.

It's curious timing for an organization that has such a vested interest in downtown's evolution into a more vibrant area. The church sat silent last year as the City Council asked Clearwater voters to approve the plan, which involves the aquarium providing money to establish a replacement City Hall in exchange for a long-term lease on the property. The ballot language approved by nearly 55 percent of voters was conditional. The deal is off unless the aquarium can secure all its financing to begin construction by August 2016.

Aquarium backers have made no secret that they hope part of the project's funding will come from the $6 million in annual bed taxes that will be freed up next year when the county finishes paying off bonds for Tropicana Field. They argue the aquarium is a major tourist attraction and that it only makes sense to reinvest in its future. And it's notable that the organizers have downsized their project from last year. It's now expected to cost $68 million, less than half the original estimate.

But the aquarium is just one interest seeking a share of bed tax cash, and that money also would be needed if an effort is made to build a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays in Pinellas County. These are decisions that will have to be decided on the merits by a County Commission that will include two new members after Tuesday's election.

Much has been made in recent months of the fractured relationship between the city of Clearwater and the church — including advice from visiting experts of the Urban Land Institute in June to try to get along. Mayor George Cretekos made overtures to the church, but the church has remained largely silent. Except, apparently, with Pinellas County commissioners in the privacy of their offices. The Church of Scientology may be downtown Clearwater's largest private property owner, but that does not give it veto power over a civic project that voters already have endorsed.

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