What Clearwater’s City Council thinks about Scientology’s downtown takeover

We showed the politicians a map of the land now owned by buyers tied to Scientology. Here’s what they said.

The Tampa Bay Tribune/October 20, 2019

By Tracey McManus

CLEARWATER — The mayor now wonders whether the city’s $64 million downtown waterfront redevelopment project is a wise expenditure.

Another City Council member is hoping “we’ll get lucky” and the federal government will revisit the Church of Scientology’s tax exempt status.

A third is unperturbed, pointing out that when Walt Disney did outside of Orlando what Scientology is doing in Clearwater, Orlando got Disney World.

All three council members were reacting to a Sunday Tampa Bay Times investigation that revealed $103 million in commercial land purchases tied to Scientology in the center of downtown Clearwater, around the church’s international spiritual headquarters. The recent purchases doubled the combined footprint of the church and its followers, giving Scientology a commanding say in the area’s future.

Earlier this month, a Times reporter sat down with all five Clearwater City Council members and showed them maps of the purchases.

All five said they believed the sales were related. Several pointed to Scientology leader David Miscavige, who cut off communication with the city over a disagreement around the time the land purchases started. Miscavige told the city manager that he would wait to communicate again until the 2020 election. By then, term limits would force several council members out of office, leaving him a new slate of elected officials to try to work with.

The purchases surround the waterfront, where the city is planning a $64 million project called Imagine Clearwater to build a vibrant park that it hopes will become a regional attraction. Still, four of the five council members said the shift in ownership did not change their commitment to the project.

Scientology declined multiple requests for an interview with Miscavige. “There is nothing unnatural about Scientologists wanting to live in the same city that houses the international spiritual headquarters of their church,” Scientology attorney Gary Soter wrote in a letter. Asked directly whether Scientology orchestrated or paid for any of the sales, the church did not answer.

Here’s more from the city officials:

Term limited in 2020

On Imagine Clearwater: The shift in ownership gives the two-term mayor pause about the plan. The waterfront renovations are intended in part to draw businesses onto the surrounding blocks. The church now has control over whether that comes to fruition or not.

“It does raise a big question,” Cretekos said. “If we invest $60 million in the Imagine Clearwater plan and it doesn’t revitalize the downtown and bring people downtown, then a lot of people are going to question, ‘Why are you doing this?’ ”

On economic development: Cretekos said if all landlords with ties to the church were bringing vibrant businesses into their properties, “we probably wouldn’t be talking about this now.”

On collaboration: Cretekos said it is “disconcerting” that parishioners have assembled property — he thinks likely under the coordination of Scientology leader David Miscavige — and are “not telling us what they want to do.”

Cretekos said it the church and its parishioners must support the idea that downtown is for everyone. “Maybe they want a Vatican City,” he said, “but even Vatican City is open to the public and welcomes the public.”

“If they’re going to be here in Clearwater, it’s important that they embrace the community that we have here as opposed to trying to build walls around it,” Cretekos said.

David Allbritton: “It’s coming from the head”

Eligible for a second term in 2022

On Miscavige: Allbritton said he believes Scientology leader David Miscavige is assembling properties “for the betterment of himself,” whether or not the 2020 council supports him.

“If they develop them for businesses that would be good for the public? Fine with that. I don’t know, if they don’t, what they’re going to do and whether they are trying to strangle Clearwater.”

Allbritton said he’s gotten the impression from local church staff that Scientology would like to see a vibrant downtown. And some prominent members, like developer Moises Agami, have brought successful businesses into the city.

But what happens to downtown next is now clearly up to Miscavige, Allbritton said.

"They aren’t doing it by themselves, it’s coming from the head, and that’s the problem with Scientology,” Allbritton said. “You’ve got to go to the guy at the top because nobody’s going to make a commitment without him.”

On Imagine Clearwater: Allbritton said the project is still vital. It’s the only way to take the public waterfront land the city owns and turn it into a destination that everyone can embrace, he said.

“I was born and raised here. I’m not giving up,” he said. “If we can get downtown to really spark and happen, it does nothing but good things for Clearwater, for everybody.”

Bob Cundiff: “They haven’t broken any laws”

Running for a second term in 2020

On Scientology’s plans: Cundiff said he couldn’t speculate on what the new property owners have in mind for their vast sections of downtown. “The only one who knows is probably David Miscavige,” he said.

On the Times: Cundiff said he wondered why the Times wasn’t also looking at “how many properties the Catholic Church owns or the Presbyterian Church owns.” (Neither church has major holdings — or its international headquarters — downtown.)

On Scientology as a landlord: Cundiff said Scientology is “known for keeping their properties looking nice. Let’s just hope they’ll be good property owners.”

“They haven’t broken any laws,” Cundiff said of the purchases. “We as government officials and me as a council member and American, I’m not treading on any church’s or any individual’s right to buy or sell property.”

When shown the map, Cundiff said, “There’s certain precedent in Orlando of the same thing,” referring to Walt Disney buying an enormous amount of property in secret for what became Disney World.

“I can’t read minds,” Cundiff said. “We’ll have to see what they do.”

Term limited in 2022

On economic development: Hamilton said downtown revitalization has been one of the city’s biggest challenges. “Progress we’re making is very, very slow,” Hamilton said. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to look at this map and see none of these properties, after changing hands here, came forward with ‘here’s what I want to do.’ ”

Hamilton recalled a market study Scientology commissioned in 2014, which concluded the church’s presence had produced nearly $917 million in local economic impact. Hamilton wondered what the city’s economy would look like if there were restaurants and shops instead of church facilities.

“If you took the organization out of downtown Clearwater, and all these properties were now held by other entities not associated with Scientology, how much greater would the economic impact be?” Hamilton said.

On the tax base: The city, he said, has to comply with the tax-exempt religious status the federal government granted Scientology in 1993. Maybe one day, the government will reconsider, Hamilton said. “Who knows, maybe we’ll get lucky and the federal government will say ‘you know what, let’s verify our earlier decision.”

Jay Polglaze: “How long can you let these properties sit vacant?"

Not running for another term in 2020

On Imagine Clearwater: Polglaze said the plan is key to getting new landlords to bring businesses into their storefronts to revitalize downtown for all in the community. He said the most critical element is a 4,000-seat covered concert amphitheater that’s in the designs but still being debated.

“Imagine Clearwater to me has to be the spark plug,” Polglaze said. “We’ve got to do this right.”

On Scientology’s plans: Polglaze said the pattern of purchases downtown “does suggest this is no accident.” He declined to say whether he believed Miscavige was involved.

But Polglaze did say the fact these purchases took off after the city began planning Imagine Clearwater suggests something about the church’s goals: “that they are not necessarily opposed to redevelopment of downtown, but that they want to have a greater influence on how it’s redeveloping.”

“They like restaurants, they like entertainment,” Polglaze said of the Scientology community. “I don’t think they want another Dunedin with 10 breweries in the core. I think they would be okay if we had a couple of those destinations.”

Polglaze also pointed to Agami, a parishioner and landlord to the successful restaurant ClearSky on Cleveland, which opened in 2017 and is run by a non-Scientologist. He said he doubts businessmen like Agami are planning to sit on their newly acquired property forever. But with little development occurring since the purchases, he’s unclear what they have in store.

“The next step is peeling paint and broken windows,” Polglaze said. “How long can you let these properties sit vacant?"

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