Clearwater voters took a leap of faith nearly three years ago by approving an ambitious plan for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium to build a new home on the city's downtown bluff. That grand vision failed to pan out. Now the aquarium has an opportunity to demonstrate its appreciation for the public's confidence in its mission by selling to the city a key piece of downtown property for a fair price.
The aquarium bought the 1.4-acre lot in 2012 as part of its plan to move to an adjacent site now occupied by City Hall. Voters in 2013 approved a referendum to allow the aquarium to pursue a long-term lease with the city, and the aquarium hoped to build a three-level facility with a price tag of up to $160 million. Early projections suggested the new attraction could draw more than 2 million visitors a year and be the long-sought cornerstone to rejuvenating downtown.
It was a calculated risk worth taking, and voters long wary of development on the bluff approved pursuing the project. But faced with raising $28 million in private donations in a relatively short period, the aquarium announced last year it was abandoning the plan and would expand its current home on Island Estates. So the aquarium no longer needs the downtown vacant lot, and its decision on whom to sell it to will have long-term consequences.
Predictably, the city is not the only potential buyer. The Church of Scientology, which already is the largest taxpayer in downtown Clearwater and casts a long shadow over the entire area, appears eager to buy the land. Tampa Bay Times staff writer Tracey McManus reported Thursday that Scientology leader David Miscavige has met individually with each City Council member to discuss the property. Miscavige ordinarily does not show up at City Hall, and his personal appearance reflects Scientology's keen interest in the land.
So does the $4.25 million offer an aquarium official says the church has made for the property, which is double the aquarium's investment. But the aquarium's decision has to be based on more than money. It is a longtime institution with deep roots in Clearwater, and it should take the long view.
The aquarium's project would have been a game changer for a city that has spent decades trying to redevelop downtown and become less dominated by the Church of Scientology. The need for private development is just as great now as when the aquarium's plans were announced and voters embraced them. And that vacant land is just as key to downtown's future as it was then. The adjacent property won't be occupied by City Hall forever, and there aren't other sites that have such potential for triggering a downtown revival.
It is not even clear what the Scientologists would do with the aquarium property if they bought it. The church suggested to aquarium officials it could be a passive park, then indicated this week the parcel would be developed for their members and placed on the tax rolls. But the church also could use the land in ways that would exempt it from property taxes. The last thing Clearwater needs is more downtown land owned by the church and off the tax rolls.
At the very least, the aquarium should keep the land until a final city master plan for the downtown bluff is submitted by consultants in December. That should shed more light on how this vacant parcel fits in a broader vision, and city officials can make a more informed decision about whether to spend public money to buy the land.
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It's understandable that the nonprofit aquarium needs a good price for its property to protect its financial future. The city also has to act in the best interests of taxpayers and not overpay for the land. But Clearwater voters stepped up on behalf of the aquarium when asked to embrace a vision for downtown. The aquarium should reward that faith and be just as committed to a brighter future for the city when it sells the property.