Clearwater -- The Church of Scientology has expressed opposition to a proposed expansion of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
Commissioner Norman Roche is one of the elected officials who say the church has contacted them.
"They asked me about my position on the aquarium and certainly gave the impression that they're not in favor of it," Roche said.
Two other commissioners contacted by telephone related the same message from the Church representatives.
The Clearwater Marine Aquarium [CMA] wants to build a $64 million attraction on a waterfront bluff now occupied by Clearwater City Hall. The church owns property on two sides of the site, including the renovated Fort Harrison Hotel. It pays more than $1 million a year in tourism "bed taxes,” and the CMA wants up to $30 million of that revenue stream for its project.
"That was the reason for meeting with us," Commissioner Charlie Justice explained. "To start laying out the plan against voting for that, should we get to that point -- which I assume we will."
All four commissioners who spoke to FOX 13 News recounted the same objections expressed by the Church representatives. The Scientologists questioned the accuracy of a feasibility study presented by the CMA, they said the aquarium is not the best use of unique public property, and they objected to the project's impacts on traffic and parking.
"Church aside, those are very real challenges with this project CMA's got going on," Roche conceded.
The objections to the project were coupled with a recent economic impact study conducted by Florida State University. It says the Church directly provides 4,300 jobs in the Clearwater area, with a direct economic impact of $432 million.
"I think they're presenting themselves as an economic player in the county more so now, and are looking to get involved at some level," Roche said.
The Church of Scientology did not respond to requests for comment. CMA executive director David Yates said he was unaware of the quiet lobbying, and offered a brief response: "We respect everybody's First Amendment rights.”
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