The Church of Scientology appears determined to complete the hostile takeover of downtown Clearwater it launched four decades ago. It's latest effort has all of the familiar characteristics: Disguised property purchases, secret meetings and intimidation. Mayor George Cretekos and other City Council members should stand up to these strong-arm tactics, force the discussions into the open and not allow downtown to become a wholly owned Scientology subsidiary.
It turns out City Manager Bill Horne and Community Redevelopment Agency director Seth Taylor have known for months that Scientology is intent on gaining control of every bit of downtown. The Times' Tracey McManus reported this week they were shown renderings by Scientology leader David Miscavige in October and later briefed about the church's concept to control every parcel and every aspect of a new retail district. While the city officials were not given copies, those discussions should have been promptly disclosed. The best antiseptic for fighting a spreading infection is openness.
Yet Miscavige will be in Clearwater next week to meet privately with each City Council member at Scientology's Fort Harrison Hotel and brief them on the grand plan. These conversations should not be secret, and at least one City Council member has had second thoughts and declined the invitation. Anyone bidding to become downtown's master developer should be willing to meet with city officials in public at City Hall, so residents and property owners can hear the pitch and decide for themselves whether this vision is best for their city.
There is nothing to suggest Scientology is interested in being a collaborative partner with Clearwater's elected officials, or that it has the city's best interests in mind. Clearwater residents have long memories about how Scientology secretly swooped in and became the largest downtown property owner, with parcels now worth more than $260 million. More recently, Scientology opposed the Clearwater Marine Aquarium's ambitious plan to move downtown — an effort voters approved but that ultimately did not work out. The aquarium has agreed to sell a key downtown parcel it no longer needs to the city, and the City Council is scheduled to vote on that purchase March 16. That property is coveted by the church, so no wonder Miscavige is waltzing in with big ideas and probably a suitcase of cash to derail the deal and buy the parcel.
Clearwater has spent decades trying to revive its downtown, which has suffered in part because of Scientology's suffocating presence. Now it finally has a clear direction. The Urban Land Institute offered its suggestions. The city has just approved a $55 million plan to revamp the waterfront and improve a concert venue. The downtown Capitol Theatre operated by Ruth Eckerd Hall is a lovely concert venue. The modern city library on the bluff is a great public asset, new apartments are being built and Clearwater and Pinellas County are discussing the possibility of a joining together to build a new government center. That would free up the city hall site to package with the adjacent aquarium parcel for development along the downtown bluff.
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Scientology doesn't want that. It doesn't want to be the largest downtown property owner. It wants to be the only owner or to control the owners. It wants to unilaterally decide how to redevelop and determine which retailers to invite. That's not a partnership. That's a monopoly.
It's been a long, difficult road for Clearwater since the Church of Scientology showed up unannounced and unwelcome in 1975. But the city's has plenty of potential for a brighter future downtown, and it should not give up now. Clearwater officials should demand Miscavige meet in public and reveal his plans. And they should tell him they are only interested in collaboration, not an occupation by Scientology.