Scientologists, city of Clearwater discuss possible land swaps

Tampa Bay Times/January 10, 2014

By Charlie Frago

Clearwater -- After months of discord leading up to a landmark Scientology event, city and church officials have recently discussed potential common ground: swapping some properties.

Both sides have needs. And both own property the other covets.

The city wants land for a parking garage to accommodate visitors to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium's planned downtown facility and the newly reopened Capitol Theatre.

The church reportedly wishes to consolidate property near its newly-christened Flag Building and a vacant lot where it plans to build a concert or event hall. A 150,000-square-foot tent is on that vacant lot now and recently hosted a series of church celebrations.

One property in particular could be a key piece of any deal.

In September, the church bought a chunk of prime real estate worth more than $3 million on the city's "Super Block," across Osceola Avenue from the Main Library. Aquarium and city officials had been eyeing that property for the new parking garage.

They are still interested in that site and include it among several possibilities for garage construction.

One of those other spots could be a vacant, aquarium-owned lot between City Hall and the Scientology-owned Oak Cove condo tower.

A couple of years ago, CMA beat the church to the punch in purchasing that lot. Some observers think it is the most enticing parcel to the church in any land swap.

The Church of Scientology also is interested in some city-owned parcels, said City Manager Bill Horne, including the fire marshal's office on the corner of Garden Avenue and Franklin Street, directly behind the Flag Building, and some surface parking on the northeast corner of Court Street and S Fort Harrison Avenue near the planned concert hall.

The church initiated a meeting with city officials just before Christmas to discuss exchanging those two properties for a property it owns just south of the Hess gas station at the intersection of Fort Harrison and Chestnut Street, Horne said.

The city doesn't have any interest in that property, Horne said, but other properties around downtown are in play.

Before Christmas, Horne, City Attorney Pam Akin and Assistant City Manager Rod Irwin met with attorney Ed Armstrong and church representative Ben Shaw for about an hour to talk informally about a possible deal.

Nothing was decided and another meeting hasn't been scheduled, Horne said, adding that it is very early in the process.

"We're not in the negotiating phase yet," Horne said.

Armstrong and church representatives declined comment.

Mayor George Cretekos has said he wants the city to reset relations with the church, especially after a rancorous period last year when the church illegally cut down trees in August to accommodate its massive three-story tent. In November, the city found that a wrap placed on the tent violated the city sign ordinance.

"Any time we can sit and talk with them, that would be great. We need to understand where they want to go. They need to understand where we want to go," Cretekos said. "We really don't have any idea of what the church's plans are now that they have the Flag Building open. It's important to us to get a better understanding of their long-term plans."

So far, the church hasn't shown much interest in parting with the Super Block property and has kept mum about its future plans for the land.

"We don't know what their intent is. They may have some use in mind that we're not aware of," Cretekos said.

The city and aquarium want to secure a parking garage site by early spring if possible. The issue will have to be resolved, Horne said, before the city signs a lease on its City Hall property for construction of the new waterfront aquarium.

The aquarium wasn't directly involved in the December meeting with the church, CEO David Yates said.

"We're wide open to thoughts and suggestions," Yates said.

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