Scientology plans control of downtown Clearwater for retail makeover

Tampa Bay Times/March 6, 2017

By Tracy McManus

The Church of Scientology is maneuvering to control all downtown real estate to create a master retail district that will operate under its management and oversight.

The plan, according to two city officials briefed by Scientology leader David Miscavige, requires all property from Osceola to Myrtle avenues between Drew and Pierce streets being bought by the church, its parishioners or others willing to participate.

The concept involves recruiting a few major national retailers to anchor the district and filling the grid with handpicked businesses all at one time, similar to how an outdoor mall is established, said Community Redevelopment Agency director Seth Taylor and City Manager Bill Horne, who in October were shown renderings of the retail strategy by Miscavige but not given copies.

The plan does not require approval from elected officials or voters but is a vision the church has already started implementing with the help of consultants and an aggressive acquisition of downtown property.

Along with the more than $260 million in property Scientology has acquired under its name since arriving in Clearwater in 1975, and later establishing its international spiritual headquarters downtown, the church has been buying parcels in the central core for the past several months through anonymous LLCs.

Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw did not respond to an email or phone call requesting comment.

But since Jan. 31, businesses registered to Scientology attorney Robert Potter bought two blocks of vacant lots along Myrtle Avenue between Drew and Laura streets for $9 million; the Sage venue at 22 N Fort Harrison Ave. for $600,000; and the Trickels Jewelers building at 714 Cleveland St. for $1.9 million, according to property records.

Through companies registered to Ybor City real estate broker Fred Edmister, the church bought the city's landmark, all-glass office tower at 601 Cleveland St. for $13 million on Feb. 1 and a nearby auto garage on Laura Street for $1.7 million on Jan. 13, Taylor confirmed. Edmister also registered 700 Cleveland Street LLC in November to buy the Clearwater Mortgage building at that address.

Alabama-based Retail Strategies executive vice president Wade Robinett said Scientology hired his firm three years ago "to reach out to retailers," but he declined to comment on specifics of the plan. The church also hired Tampa-based Gensler architects to design a facade overhaul for property along Cleveland Street.

Horne said he expects Miscavige to make a public presentation in the near future. He said he believes the plan has stayed relatively secret so the church could acquire real estate quietly and avoid property owners inflating the prices.

For two decades, the city has tried to revitalize downtown by hiring consultants, designing redevelopment plans and marketing to businesses. Despite its proximity to the Intracoastal Waterway and success of the waterfront Coachman Park as an event venue, Clearwater's downtown has lagged behind Tampa and St. Petersburg.

The city last month approved a 10-year, $55 million plan for reshaping the waterfront to bring more visitors to a new garden, improved concert venue and walkable nature trails.

Horne said he is willing to allow Scientology officials to take the lead on recruiting businesses in hopes they can find the solution that has eluded city government.

"We have to try something," Horne said. "We haven't been successful on our own. The private sector has not been successful. Maybe we're in a situation where the only way we get that investment is if the church brings it."

But Taylor, whom the city hired in July as the community redevelopment agency director to recruit businesses and help revive downtown, said he believes a more grass roots and market-driven approach would be more realistic.

He said if the city can bring a flagship business as an anchor, like a craft brewery, local businesses will follow.

"The retail strategy they are proposing is frankly not feasible," Taylor said. "I don't think it should be the business of the Church of Scientology to take the lead on this. The reason being the city is charged with representing the interests and desires of the whole city. The church does not have that mandate. And that could potentially impact what this retail environment looks like and how it is shaped. Bottom line is the CRA is the entity that should be taking the lead on retail recruitment efforts."

City Council members said they knew the church was working on a retail strategy but had no idea about the scope or details.

"It's disconcerting," Vice Mayor Bill Jonson said about the surprise, declining to offer his opinion until he hears details from Horne or Miscavige. "It may be a wonderful plan, but it's just not a partnership. Maybe it is a partnership. I just haven't heard anything, so I don't know."

Zachary Thorn, vice president of government affairs for the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce, said he was unaware the church's strategy was to take complete control of downtown.

"The chamber would appreciate any partner that would make the downtown viable, but communication is key in any relationship and the more forthcoming they are in general about their business plans, the more the community can work with them," Thorn said.

In only the second time he has arranged formal meetings with all elected officials, Miscavige is scheduled to meet individually with each City Council member next Tuesday at the Fort Harrison Hotel to discuss the retail strategy and a 1.4-acre vacant parcel the city is expected to vote on March 16 to buy that is owned by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and desired by the church.

After initially accepting a one-on-one meeting when it was put on her calendar last week, City Council member Doreen Caudell on Monday said she will not meet with Miscavige privately and insisted he make a presentation at the March 16City Council meeting.

"These individual meetings, requested exclusively by Scientology, ignore transparency and inappropriately snub our great community and our citizens from commenting on Scientology's retail plan," Caudell wrote in an email to Horne.

Horne said it will require a leap of faith to trust the church is committed to building a downtown geared toward the general public, not just its parishioners. He said he was told the church does not intend to own the properties forever, but to sell the real estate back into the private sector once a viable economic marketplace is established.

After consultants hired by the city in 2014 said the city and Scientology should work closer together, Horne said Miscavige became involved in the church's retail strategy.

Although 75 percent of the church's current real estate holdings in Clearwater are tax exempt for religious purposes, Horne said the properties involved in the retail district would remain on the tax rolls.

Shaw told the Times last month that the church "has no further plans to expand our campus downtown," but Taylor said Shaw, in a private conversation, clarified he was referring only to the religious campus.

Horne said he does not know specific businesses the church is recruiting but said the concept is geared toward the high-end and compared it to Tampa's International Plaza.

Jeff Green, a national retail consultant, said he has never heard of a private entity controlling a business district outside of the Vatican but acknowledged there is a stigma that would have to be overcome by consumers.

He said most distressed downtowns with high vacancies like Clearwater respond better to restaurants and local businesses for revitalization. The market for high-end retail and chain stores thrives in high-traffic areas like U.S. 19 rather than neighborhood downtowns.

"It makes sense in terms of being able to control more of downtown, but the question I have comes down to retail feasibility," Green said.

Horne said transparency by the church would help alleviate some of the suspicion the public has about Scientology's intentions and that a public presentation is needed.

"Are they going to follow through with what they say is in this opportunity? I can only go on what they say," he said. "In some point in the future we will know if they were truthful."

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