Scientology's David Miscavige talks about Cleveland Street redevelopment and entertainment center backed by Tom Cruise

Tampa Bay Times/March 14, 2017

By Tracey McManus

Clearwater — Scientology leader David Miscavige on Tuesday revealed privately to City Council members the church's downtown redevelopment strategy, which focuses on recruiting businesses to Cleveland Street and bankrolling a facade overhaul for the main thoroughfare rather than controlling the entire downtown footprint.

With the help of actor and noted Scientologist Tom Cruise, the church is also developing an entertainment complex on two blocks of vacant lots it bought last month along Myrtle Avenue between Cleveland and Drew streets, said Vice Mayor Bill Jonson.

In the 10th floor ballroom of the church's Fort Harrison Hotel, Miscavige, who is rarely seen in public, put on a theatrical display of his vision for Clearwater's urban core using blown-up before-and-after renderings and video simulations on a large flat screen TV. Miscavige avoided having to open the meetings to the public and the press because he invited council members one-by-one to sit at a conference table to hear his pitch.

"The presentation was very much choreographed," said Council member Hoyt Hamilton. "He's a very interesting individual. He's a very high-energy guy."

Miscavige, dressed in a suit, told council members his plan to bring in big-name retail stores to empty storefronts is based on cooperation with existing downtown property owners. Of the roughly 40 storefronts along Cleveland Street between Osceola and Myrtle avenues, at least half are owned by the church, its parishioners or owners who rent to Scientology-owned businesses, according to a Tampa Bay Times analysis.

When Community Redevelopment Agency director Seth Taylor was briefed by Miscavige on the plan on Oct. 24, Taylor said he was assured the concept did not involve the church buying more property.

But then, in January and February, the church purchased more than $26 million of prime downtown real estate through shell companies, including the landmark-all glass Atrium office tower, the two blocks of Myrtle Avenue, the Sage Venue on N Fort Harrison Avenue, an auto garage and the Trickels Jewelers building on Cleveland Street.

"From what I understand, they informed the council members today they were not planning on acquiring additional property, but it's known on the street that they are actively making offers on additional properties right now along Cleveland Street," said Taylor, who did not meet Tuesday with Miscavige.

With its international spiritual headquarters downtown, Scientology has accumulated more than $260 million in real estate under its name since it arrived in 1975. About 75 percent of that is tax exempt for religious purposes, but any property used for commercial retail would be on the tax rolls.

Miscavige told council members he planned to make an invitation-only presentation to downtown property owners and his parishioners but did not commit to a public presentation. City council member Doreen Caudell was the only elected official to decline her private meeting.

Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw did not respond to requests for comment or an interview with Miscavige.

Joined by three consultants, Miscavige did not provide the names of retailers the church has recruited, but Jonson said "some of their graphics show a steak house and more restaurants . . . but also retail clothing. A variety of stuff."

Although he said the church might fund up to 100 percent of the facade redesign of Cleveland Street, Miscavige did not provide a cost estimate or specify how much property owners or the city might be asked to contribute, according to council members.

In addition to the retail district on Cleveland Street, Miscavige emphasized the church's need to buy the 1.4-acre-lot owned by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium that's adjacent to the church's 13-story Oak Cove religious retreat.

Council members said Miscavige showed a video of a swimming pool, playground, garden and possibly another hotel on the aquarium lot for parishioners, not the public.

The council is scheduled to vote on whether to buy the lot on April 20, and aquarium CEO David Yates said his nonprofit is committed to selling to the city.

Hamilton said Miscavige insinuated the church's redevelopment of Cleveland Street, retail recruitment and entertainment complex hinged on the church securing the aquarium lot.

"He didn't come out and say it, but it was more of that his funding resources would be much more amenable if the (aquarium) property were to be available to the church," Hamilton said. "I told him the two projects are mutually exclusive."

Mayor George Cretekos said Miscavige repeatedly emphasized that his plan lives up to a city consultant's report from 2014 that the city and the church must work together to revitalize downtown.

Although Miscavige has not released his plan to the public, Cretekos said he does not believe his intentions are only to accommodate his parishioners and the church.

"I think what's driving them is to benefit their parishioners but I think he understands that he is part of a community of Clearwater," Cretekos said. "What we do has to benefit the entire community and our visitors."

City officials have tried unsuccessfully for decades to revitalize downtown, and because Miscavige repeatedly said Scientology was trying to help without taking over control, Hamilton said he's willing to listen.

"I'm cautiously intrigued by it," Hamilton said. "I've always said that downtown Clearwater has the potential to have a Hyde Park aura to it, but it needs the economic influx of cash to upgrade the buildings and create the atmosphere. We have not been successful at that for 30 years. . . . I'm willing to be open minded."

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