Mayor speaks out on county's land deal

Tampa Bay Newspapers/June 15, 2011

Clearwater - The city of Clearwater didn't necessarily want to buy those five parcels of excess county property in downtown Clearwater that the Church of Scientology recently scooped up. But Mayor Frank Hibbard thinks it would have been nice if somebody from the county had had the courtesy to ask.

"I would have liked to have known in advance (that the parcels were for sale), but the county didn't communicate with us," Hibbard said in a June 9 telephone interview. "We would have informed (county officials) if we were selling properties that they might be interested in."

The land was declared surplus when the cash-strapped county decided to downsize and relocate some departments. County Commissioner Karen Seel, a former Clearwater commissioner, was against plans to sell surplus properties, saying that selling in today's depressed real estate market, it isn't a good idea, and besides, the county might need the land when the economy improves. But at the May 24 Pinellas County Commission meeting, while Seel was absent, her colleagues approved the sale. It wasn't the first controversial purchase of downtown Clearwater real estate by the Church of Scientology.

In 1975, as far as anyone knows, there were no Scientologists living in the Clearwater area. But in December of that year, the Church of Scientology in Clearwater, also called the Flag Service Organization, bought the historic Fort Harrison Hotel and the Clearwater Bank Building using a dummy corporation, although the true identity of the buyer was disclosed once the deal was complete.

There was nothing sinister about buying land through a dummy corporation; in fact it was a common business practice in those days. Walt Disney used several dummy corporations to buy up 43 square miles of central Florida land for his Disney World complex in the mid-1960s. The theory was that if the word got around that a well-heeled buyer was interested in land in a certain area, the price of that land would go up.

Today, Clearwater is the spiritual headquarters of the Scientology religion. Even before this latest purchase, the Church of Scientology owned more than a dozen buildings in Clearwater. It is estimated that there are now more than 12,000 Scientologists in the Clearwater area, including 1,200 church staffers and 2,000 out-of-town church members who come here for religious instruction.

The church's website estimates that Scientologists pump $96.7 million directly into the local economy each year. With the ripple effect, that equates to $156.8 million a year.

"I'm always hoping that we can get (the latest parcels bought by the church) back on the tax rolls and generating jobs," Hibbard said.

But the fact that the parcels will now be church-owned doesn't necessarily mean that they will be tax-exempt. Only church properties directly used for religious purposes are tax-exempt, and those used for revenue generating purposes, such as motels for visiting Scientologists, are taxable. According to Hibbard, the Church of Scientology's taxable properties make it the largest payer of property taxes in downtown Clearwater.

Even if all the land the Scientologists are buying from the county is used for tax-exempt purposes, the city of Clearwater will be no worse off than it is now. That's because the land was also exempt from Clearwater property taxes when the county owned it.

The land was sold in two "packages." Package A contained three small buildings on 0.88 acres at 305 and 311 South Osceola Ave., and 300 South Fort Harrison Ave. It was sold for $1.847 million, the lowest bid established by the county in 2010.

Package B consisted of two buildings on 1.37 acres of land at 300 South Garden Ave. and 512 South Fort Harrison Ave. It was purchased for the $4.92 million price set by the County Commission. The county will have rent-free use of Package B for 18 months while it relocates its Department of Environmental Management.

The church has not yet released details of what it plans to do with the properties. But there has been some talk of using part of Package B as a "garden park" for the enjoyment of church members and nonmembers alike.

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