George Cretekos and the Stepford Scientologists

Tampa Bay Tribune/February 28, 2014

By Daniel Ruth

Here is a little-known fact that ought to qualify Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos to hold on to the job in perpetuity.

The Cretekos family tree includes the great opera diva Maria Callas.

You'll recall that in her lifetime Callas was the paramour of a fabulously rich Greek shipping magnate who was cruelly indifferent to her emotional needs, frequently abusive and otherwise acted like an insufferable bully.

Maria Callas had Aristotle Onassis.

George Cretekos has the Church of Scientology.

Cretekos, who was a longtime aide to the late Rep. C.W. Bill Young, just may have the one of the toughest mayoral jobs in the state.

While his peers wrestle with traditional urban challenges like transportation, crime, potholes and taxes, Cretekos also has to contend with the influence of a vast international sect that descended on the middle of Clearwater.

For Cretekos, being mayor of Clearwater must feel a bit like owning a beautiful home, only to have to share the space with a boorish brother-in-law who lies around all day and drinks your booze.

"It's a little frustrating when you have a Church of Scientology," Cretekos nodded while he picked at a Panera Bread bagel, before quickly adding that his issues with the sect are not with the local members. "But for some reason, its leadership thinks it is above the community."

Over the years, Scientology has ignored local zoning codes, ran up a $435,000 fine for construction delays on its recently opened soup can E-meter Flag Building, and essentially regarded City Hall as a quaint nuisance.

And of course, Scientology is infamous for hounding and stalking former members of the cathedral of creepiness and its critics.

When Cretekos was elected mayor he heard nothing from Scientology's leader, David Miscavige. And when the sect's Flag site was about to open, Cretekos sent a handwritten congratulatory note to Miscavige in which he expressed the hope the two could sit down and restart the often fractious relationship between the city and Scientology. He's still waiting for a response, but he's not sitting still.

All mayors have a responsibility to promote the many charms of their cities. And Clearwater has numerous virtues to exploit.

But Cretekos' job to attract tourism and investment is made all the more difficult by the overarching shadow of a mysterious and quasireligious gaggle of Stepford Scientologists roaming the city. Really now, who wants to set up shop next door to what amounts to little more than a group of theological grifters?

And that largely explains the city's fervor in expanding the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and renovating the Capitol Theatre. Cretekos makes no bones that these efforts are an attempt to wrest the city's image as a haven for deer-in-the-headlights Scientology sycophants and create one of a more welcoming place for nonbelievers. "We still have a lot of potential."

Still, Cretekos is a realist. It's entirely possible that Scientology's deep pockets have already taken over downtown Clearwater. And it might be time for the city to rethink where it wants its core presence to be. Cretekos has begun to muse, mull and meditate that the day might come when Clearwater's city center settles elsewhere.

In the meantime, Cretekos has more timely concerns in trying to avoid a budget shortfall and fretting about the impact of flood insurance rates on his constituents. From his perch in north Pinellas County, Cretekos was asked how he would resolve the ongoing Tampa Bay Rays/Tropicana Field debate. The mayor offered a small smile.

"What's most important is not where the Rays wind up," Cretekos said. "It's spring training." If Tampa Bay truly wants to think of itself in a regional sense, Cretekos said, then St. Petersburg, Tampa and Clearwater need to work together to make sure the Toronto Blue Jays stay in Dunedin. "I don't hear anybody talking about that" — except George Cretekos.

Imagine the entire region unselfishly coming together to help a smaller town keep its baseball team for the common good. Now there's a fat-lady-singing moment for you.

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