Clearwater opens door for land swap with Church of Scientology for coveted lot

The city bought the 1.4 acre lot in 2017. Now the council indicates willingness to swap it for church properties near the Imagine Clearwater project.

Tampa Bay Times/September 15, 2020

By Tracey McManus

Weeks before City Council members voted unanimously in April 2017 to buy a 1.4-acre downtown property, Church of Scientology leader David Miscavige made a grand attempt to outbid them.

Miscavige offered the seller, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, $15 million for the vacant parcel, $10.75 million more than the city had agreed to pay.

The city council wanted the Pierce Street lot, across the street from what was then City Hall, to incorporate into the waterfront redevelopment project Imagine Clearwater, which is now preparing to break ground. At the time, Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw said the church wanted the lot, which is also adjacent to the 13-story Oak Cove religious retreat, to build a pool and other amenities.

But the aquarium rejected the church’s offer in favor of its long-standing partnership with the city. In the two and a half years following the snub, companies tied to Scientology bought about 100 properties within walking distance of the downtown waterfront. To date, they have done little with their new acquisitions, which includes empty storefronts and buildings.

On Tuesday, assistant city manager Michael Delk made a proposal that could bring the drama over this downtown property full circle. Because the Pierce Street site is the least significant of three city-owned parcels being marketed to developers to build mixed use projects, Delk suggested swapping the lot for any church-connected property that could have greater use to the redeveloped waterfront park.

All five council members support the idea of swapping the Pierce Street site for church property, according to comments during the meeting and later interviews.

Mayor Frank Hibbard said the money the city could get by selling the parcel to the church could help pay for the Imagine Clearwater project; a swap, he said, could hand the city long-coveted church properties or prime parcels around the park that were recently acquired by parishioner-controlled companies.

“There’s properties in downtown that are currently owned by Scientology that I would like to own,” Hibbard said. “Are there opportunities for a swap? I think there are, and I think we would be foolish to close our minds to those opportunities.”

Council member Mark Bunker, a longtime Scientology critic elected in March, said he believes Miscavige orchestrated the series of purchases by parishioner-run companies beginning in 2017 “as a bargaining tool” to get the Pierce Street property for the church.

In a later interview, City Attorney Pam Akin said she has not talked recently to Miscavige about a potential swap.

Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw did not respond to questions about whether the church would entertain a deal.

Delk said he intends to still include the Pierce Street property, along with the former City Hall and Harborview sites, in the request for proposals he expects to issue before the end of the year, asking developers to submit concepts to build mixed use projects on city owned sites. He said the bid document could indicate that the Pierce Street site has the potential to change hands.

In a meeting with city manager Bill Horne, Akin and Delk in January, Miscavige told the city officials he did not have any information on the future plans for the nearly 100 properties bought by parishioner controlled companies since 2017.

But at that meeting, Horne said Miscavige reiterated his desire to acquire the Pierce Street lot to build a swimming pool and other amenities for parishioners

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