Clearwater, Forida -- There are big plans in the works for the City of Clearwater’s downtown area. The city has their vision and so does the Church of Scientology. According to online tax records, the church owns more than $200 million worth of property in the city.
“You know the beach is just jumping and it’s a ghost town here” Clayton Irwin said. Irwin is the owner of the Lucky Anchor Irish Pub. His business is tucked into the heart of downtown, which also happens to be the epicenter of the Church of Scientology’s Spiritual Headquarters.
Irwin spent half his live savings to open the bar. He said he didn’t know what to expect from parishioners. So far, he said the church has been very welcoming and even baked him cookies. But, Irwin says patrons that come into the bar ask him questions all the time about the church.
“I hear it. I have to educate people every day that come into my bar,” Irwin said. “I get asked questions everyday, what’s the church like, what’s the church like, they are great neighbors they watch out for me and I watch out for them,” Irwin said.
Since 1975, the church has been on a land grab in Clearwater. According to the church, they own 56 buildings totaling 2 million square feet. The buildings are used for “religious services, religious retreats, humanitarian and social betterment centers, support and administration,” according to Freedom Magazine, Published by the Church of Scientology International.
Irwin told ABC Action News business is booming during major events downtown. But, day to day he struggles to win over the beach business.
“When you see a lot of vacant buildings like this it doesn't look good for general public coming in, because they don't know that downtown is starting to rebuild,” Irwin said.
Clearwater Mayor and Council unanimously voted to approve a $50 million waterfront revitalization project. According to the 144 page master plan, the project needs the support of the church to be completely successful.
"They may have some property they may want to develop for retail, restaurants for commercial space,” Mayor George Cretekos said. "They own lots of property here. Some of it we hope they will use to redevelop for commercial space, offices, for restaurants for retail, maybe even a movie theater. I would like to think their interest is our interest in redeveloping the downtown.”
Cretekos and city council will meet one-on-one with church leader, David Miscavige. City officials tell us they expect to learn more about the church’s plan to redevelop downtown. And, Miscavige is expected to make the church’s plea for $4 million piece of vacant land adjacent to City Hall that is owned by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
Since last month, ABC Action News has been working on this report regarding the future of downtown Clearwater. Despite multiple requests for the church to go on the record and do a sit down camera interview, they have declined. We want to know what their vision of a redeveloped downtown would look like.
The Public Relations Director, Pat Harney, sent ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska a copy of the 2014 Urban Land Institute report on Clearwater, Florida, along with a second study called The Economic Impact Study of the Church of Scientology on Clearwater, Florida and surrounding areas by the Florida State University Center for Economic Forecasting and Analysis, as well as the 2016 year-end edition of Freedom, a magazine published by the Church of Scientology International.
Harney declined to comment further saying, “with all things considered, we do not have anything to announce just yet."
Seth Taylor, the city Community Redevelopment Agency Director said members of the church are entitled to their opinion about the future of downtown, but stressed, the city is leading the effort to reimagine downtown.
“They shouldn't be the ones as a religious institution, who are shaping and shepherding the retail development strategy,” Taylor said.
Taylor said the city wants more mom and pop businesses downtown, the city wants more high end retailers. Taylor said the city wants “a downtown that reflects the local community and region.”
The vote on the aquarium land that was set for has been rescheduled to .
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