Scientology adds to its majority on this Clearwater downtown board

The Downtown Development board has little authority. But its makeup changed at the same time companies tied to Scientology bought more downtown property.

Tampa Bay Times/October 19, 2020

By Tracey McManus

Clearwater — Members of the Church of Scientology further increased their representation on an advisory board aimed at revitalizing downtown by winning seats in the third election in recent years.

Real estate agents Terri Novitsky and Ray Cassano, an incumbent, were the top two vote getters in the four-way race last week for two open seats on the volunteer Downtown Development Board. When Novitsky takes office in January, the number of officials who are also Scientology parishioners will increase from four to five on the seven-member board.

Only property owners within the board’s boundaries can vote for members, who have no authority to pass ordinances or hire and fire staff. The board collects a special tax on property owners, which is spent on marketing, grants and promoting downtown.

In 2017, two of the seven development board members were Scientology parishioners. That representation increased as companies tied to Scientology bought an unprecedented amount of downtown real estate.

Between 2017 and 2019, companies tied to Scientology bought nearly 100 properties near the downtown waterfront. They spent $103 million, nearly all in cash.

Today 35 of those storefronts and buildings sit empty. The new owners have 28 vacant lots. At least 15 businesses that got new landlords tied to Scientology moved out and were not replaced.

Companies controlled by Cassano and Shabab Emrani, a member of Scientology who was elected to the development board last year, bought nine downtown properties since 2017.

Six of those — a vacant Walgreens, an empty office building, vacant ground floor retail space below Station Square condos, and three vacant lots north of downtown — remain undeveloped.

In 2017, a company controlled by Novitsky bought two office parcels on Chestnut Street. Cassano and Novitsky did not respond to requests for comment on Monday.

Of 913 properties within the Downtown Development Board boundaries, representatives of only about a third — 332 — cast ballots. Another 134 parcels were not counted because they are owned by the government or are fully tax exempt, according to Community Redevelopment Agency specialist Anne Lopez.

Novitsky and Cassano garnered 244 votes and 240 votes, respectively. Real estate investor Nick Petrantoni received 89 votes and fitness professional Derek Williams got 79. Neither Petrantoni nor Williams are members of the church.

In July, the board adopted policy that limits discussion from members and the public to matters “that are relevant to the (Downtown Development Board’s) district and purpose.”

City council member Mark Bunker, a Scientology critic elected in March, called it an effort to block him from discussing Scientology’s impact on downtown with the development board.

Board attorney Elise Winters said they had been in the process of updating policy for years. She said the board should limit discussions to issues it has authority over, which does not include real estate activity by church officials.

Bunker said the development board, which has little power, is where the church’s influence stops when it comes to public office. Bunker, who spent 20 years exposing what he calls fraud and abuse in Scientology, won a five-way race for the council in March, a city-wide vote.

"The church doesn’t have enough members to keep someone like me off the city council,” Bunker said.

Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw did not respond to a request for comment.

On Aug. 27, Holly Thompson, a vendor at Sunsets at Pier 60 Festival, addressed development board members while they discussed the 2021 work plan. Thomspon said that she consistently hears visitors say downtown appears to support the church over local businesses.

After two minutes, board chair Paris Morfopolous, a business owner and Scientology parishioner, cut her off, stating “this is not a discussion on public perception of Scientology.”

But Thompson said she was trying to address how the city and stakeholders could change public perception of downtown.

“If that’s not something they want to talk about and look at, that’s the reality,” Thompson said in an interview Monday.

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