Clearwater businessmen part of Scientology-tied downtown purchases seek $500,000 grant

Ray Cassano and Shahab Emrani propose turning a two-story structure they bought in 2018 into apartments with retail.

Tampa Bay Times/March 18, 2020

By Tracey McManus

Clearwater — His plan to convert a vacant, dilapidated building into an apartment with ground-floor retail “will be an igniter” for other redevelopment in the depressed downtown, real estate broker Ray Cassano promised the city this week.

Cassano and business partner Shahab Emrani propose turning the two-story structure they bought in 2018 at the corner of Chestnut Street and Myrtle Avenue into 14 residential units with four retail stores.

But that transformation, they said, depends on the partners securing a $500,000 incentive from the city.

Without the grant to help with the $2.9 million project, Cassano told the City Council he would likely “shell out” the building and rent it to a medical office, a use that would not bring the foot traffic or market stimulus of a mixed-use project.

The council, acting as the Community Redevelopment Agency, is expected to vote in April on whether to award Cassano and Emrani the $500,000 grant. By then, following Tuesday’s election, three of the five seats will be filled with new members who will decide the award.

This council voted 4-1 on Monday to allow city staff to begin discussing terms with the businessmen but aired concerns about the feasibility of the project.

“Paying $500,000 for 14 apartment units isn’t really going to move the needle on people coming to downtown Clearwater,” said Mayor George Cretekos, who will be term-limited out of office this month.

When Cassano responded that the project would also house four retail businesses, Cretekos alluded to a pattern of vacancies and businesses with low activity in Cassano’s properties.

“I’m not convinced that you’re going to be able to do that given your track record despite what you’re saying, sir,” Cretekos said.

Cassano and Emrani were part of the wave of members of the Church of Scientology who, using limited liability companies, bought an unprecedented amount of downtown real estate between 2017 and 2019. In that time, the church and 32 companies controlled by parishioners bought about 100 properties in the center of downtown, where the city is trying to spark a revival of retail, restaurants and housing.

The majority of every block within walking distance of the waterfront is now in control of the church or its members.

Five companies controlled by Cassano and Emrani bought nine downtown properties since 2017. Five of those — a vacant Walgreens on Cleveland Street, the empty Chestnut Street building and three vacant lots north of downtown — remain undeveloped.

Before the wave of land purchases in 2017, companies controlled by Cassano and Emrani already owned a vacant lot on Hendricks Street and a vacant 3-acre property on Grove street, properties that have remained undeveloped for years.

Cassano and Emrani both serve on the Downtown Development Board, an elected body that uses revenue from the special taxing district to market downtown.

City Council member Hoyt Hamilton raised concern about how the 17 parking spaces proposed in the project’s design could support 14 apartments and four retail stores.

Cassano explained he is attempting to purchase an adjacent vacant lot that would provide another 15 spaces, according to the design documents submitted to the city.

But Steven P. Frank, managing partner of the partnership that owns the vacant lot, told the Tampa Bay Times on Monday that he has no intention of selling the land.

Frank said he bought the lot in 2017 to serve as “a buffer” around the new Walgreens complex that his company owns on the same block.

When council member Jay Polglaze asked how the partners would pay for the rest of the $2.9 million project if they receive the $500,000 city grant, Cassano said the project will be financed through credit lines.

Polglaze was the sole vote against allowing negotiations.

“This was sloppy, incomplete and I’m going to dream bigger,” Polglaze said of the application.

Council member David Allbritton was more optimistic, calling the residential project “a best use” of Community Redevelopment Agency tax revenue that could bring more residents and foot traffic to the depressed area.

“The more people we can get down here, the better,” Allbritton said.

In 2018, Cassano and Emrani also bought one of two retail spaces on the ground floor of Station Square condos, a 126-unit tower on Cleveland Street.

Cassano and Emrani’s side includes 22 office suites. The adjacent half, a large restaurant space, is owned by a separate limited liability company. It has remained vacant for years.

Cassano said all but two of his 22 suites are rented by a variety of businesses, like hairdressers and a holistic veterinarian.

But on a given day, it is rare to find any of the offices filled with visitors or employees.

Community Redevelopment Agency director Amanda Thompson said when the proposed grant agreement comes back to the council for a vote in April, it will have more specific detail on the project, like financing sources and a construction timeline.

Although he won’t be in office to vote on it, Cretekos made his concerns clear for the next council.

“We don’t know what the rent is going to be on those apartments, we’re not sure it’s going to help the foot traffic in downtown, we don’t know about the parking situation,” Cretekos said. “... I’m not comfortable with what you’re presenting.”

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