Scientologists to pay $6.7 million for Pinellas-owned properties

St. Petersburg Times/May 25, 2011

Clearwater -- The Church of Scientology will expand its footprint in downtown Clearwater after Pinellas County commissioners voted 6-0 Tuesday to sell about 2 acres of county property there.

The county's parcels are vacant or being phased out as part of downsizing and budget cuts. The church, whose growth downtown has miffed some critics, was the sole bidder, agreeing to pay $6.7 million.

"I support the sale - I think it's a great price," County Commissioner Ken Welch said.

The only hint of heartburn over the $6.7 million sale to the church Tuesday came from Commissioner Neil Brickfield. Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard complained last week the city wasn't notified of the decision to sell to the church.

"I felt bad," Brickfield said of reading Hibbard's comments in the Times.

Two of the five buildings are offices for the county's environmental management department, which is being dismantled and shifted into public works offices elsewhere. The other three parcels are vacant, including a former gas station.

The properties are:

    • 300 S Garden Ave., an environmental management office just south of Scientology's Flag Building.

    • 300 S Fort Harrison Ave., a former service station being used for storage just south of the Fort Harrison Hotel.

    • 305 and 311 S Osceola Ave., two vacant houses just north of the County Courthouse.

  • 512 S Fort Harrison Ave., an environmental management office south of the courthouse.

No Scientology officials spoke during the commission's brief discussion Tuesday. In recent statements to the Times, church spokeswoman Pat Harney said the church plans to soon build a 3,500-seat auditorium next to the property at 300 S Garden. That parcel also borders Court Street and Fort Harrison Avenue.

Harney said the building will be torn down to allow for a "landscaped sculptured garden park befitting the grandeur of the new event hall."

The former gas station next door to the Fort Harrison Hotel will be removed and the land used for a parking garage. Its design will match the hotel's architecture, Harney said.

The County Commission approved putting the land up for sale in October. While Clearwater officials were informed of that decision, the county did not notify them of the decision to sell to the church.

Hibbard said he was disappointed the county wasn't selling to a business to ensure the land went on the tax rolls. While the church has taxable property downtown, about two-thirds of its land is not taxed because it is used for religious purposes.

But county purchasing director Joe Lauro said the county advertised the sale in the newspaper, contacted people possibly interested in buying the land and posted the sale on its purchasing Web site.

The church has long sought the land that it's buying, Harney said. The church began buying downtown properties when it arrived in 1975, amassing about 30 of them. It considers Clearwater its "spiritual mecca."

Commissioner Karen Seel was absent from Tuesday's meeting.

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