$58M sale extends Scientologists’ control of downtown Clearwater

The deal involves eight properties, including an office tower where city government offices are located.

Tampa Bay Times/April 4, 2024

By Tracey McManus

CLearwater — Two landowners have sold an office tower and seven other properties to companies managed by developer Moises Agami in a deal that broadens control of the city’s downtown by Church of Scientology members.

Agami is a longtime Scientology parishioner, and the sellers — Daniels Ikajevs and Festus Porbeni — were among the last private landowners in the downtown core not connected to the church.

The transaction occurred Tuesday, according to property records.

Ikajevs sold his 11-story office building, two Cleveland Street retail buildings, three parking lots and the first-floor retail space in the Waters Edge condo to two limited liability companies managed by Agami. Porbeni also sold his single Cleveland Street storefront to an Agami company in a combined transaction with Ikajevs.

Agami’s companies paid $57.75 million in cash for the parcels, records show.

The sales leave the heart of downtown around the waterfront with just seven commercial property owners who are not associated with Scientology or government.

They come as City Manager Jennifer Poirrier continues talks with church representatives for a potential deal to activate some of the 200-plus downtown area properties purchased since 2017 by entities tied to Scientology.

Limited liability companies operated by church members have spent about $221 million to acquire the land, almost all in cash, according to a Tampa Bay Times analysis of property records. The vast majority of those buildings, storefronts and lots have remained vacant while the city is investing aggressively to revitalize downtown.

The city spent $84 million to renovate the waterfront Coachman Park and build The Sound concert venue last summer.

Clearwater government moved into the sixth floor of Ikajevs’ One Clearwater Tower for temporary offices in 2019 after vacating the old City Hall to free it for redevelopment. Poirrier confirmed the four years remaining on the lease at 600 Cleveland St. will be transferred to Agami’s company while a new City Hall is in development.

Neither Agami nor Scientology spokesperson Ben Shaw responded to questions about plans for the properties.

Ikajevs and Porbeni, however, attribute their decision to sell not to the church’s grip on downtown but to frustrations with what they call the city’s lack of vision and instability in recent years. Ikajevs said the city’s investment in the waterfront park was “too little too late.”

“I don’t think the market is very excited about things the city of Clearwater is actually doing,” he said. “At some point, there are more reasons to leave than stick around. There’s just too many disappointments in downtown and the leadership.”

Mayor Bruce Rector, who was sworn into office on Monday, said the city is doing what it can to bring activity downtown, but that the control of vast sections by Scientology and its parishioners is a challenge. He said the city is pursuing solutions, like its plan to redevelop about a dozen Pinellas County properties if the county finalizes a plan to move operations out of downtown.

“I don’t think anybody thought that just building The Sound and the park was going to flip the switch,” Rector said. “It’s probably going to continue to be a difficult conversation in getting (Scientology) members to activate their properties, and we’re going to keep working on that, but what we need to focus on is what we can control.”

Ikajevs began buying his properties in 2012 with a goal to see the “blank slate” of downtown attract more investors. In 2019, he completed the Ring workspaces on the third floor of his 600 Cleveland St. office tower, a $2.2 million buildout that included a $600,000 grant from the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency.

But his five storefronts across the southern 500 block of Cleveland Street have remained vacant for years. He attributed it to “a minuscule” demand from businesses for space downtown.

“If operators see opportunity, they will come, they will call, they will ask, they will make it happen,” he said. “And if they don’t see it’s a viable market, they will not come.”

In 2021, Ikajevs proposed a beer and food hall for his 500 block storefronts. The city’s redevelopment agency granted him $500,000 to cover renovations to make the dilapidated buildings occupiable and pledged another $500,000 if he could show proof of securing reputable tenants.

Ikajevs said the grant was not workable when he had to demolish the buildings instead of renovate, so the project never moved forward.

But most of the vacancies in the downtown core are in buildings owned by companies tied to the church. Although those companies are managed by various parishioners, Poirrier has been in discussions with Scientology representatives about a potential deal to activate them.

Of 24 Cleveland Street storefronts in buildings owned by Agami’s companies, 15 are empty.

“I do think we know who we are and who we want to be and have a plan to make that happen,” Poirrier said. “It’s not something that we can do alone, hence why we’re having conversations with all kinds of property owners, including the church.”

In 2022, former City Manager Jon Jennings discussed a land swap with Scientology leader David Miscavige that ultimately fizzled. Poirrier said more recently that Miscavige is asking the city to vacate Garden Avenue for construction of L. Ron Hubbard Hall, a long-planned 3,600-seat auditorium honoring the group’s founder on its international spiritual headquarters.

What the city would receive in exchange is still under negotiation, but any deal must be approved by the City Council in a public meeting.

“The conversation has not just been on an exchange of property or activating a certain property,” Poirrier said. “It’s about the whole concept because it’s going to take more than just an activation of one or two properties to make our downtown vibrant.”

Ikajevs said it’s been difficult to foster change downtown with turnover in city government. Since 2022, the Community Redevelopment Agency, which oversees downtown revitalization, has had five directors, including interim leaders. There have been two city managers in that time.

Still, Ikajevs said he never considered selling his properties until two events last year.

First, in March 2023, former Mayor Frank Hibbard resigned during a workshop over disagreements with the council over spending on a City Hall. Then, weeks later, the council began discussing significant changes to an apartment and hotel project approved for the bluff surrounding Coachman Park.

Ikajevs was part of a team that submitted a bid to develop the bluff in 2022. But the council instead selected Gotham Organization of New York and The DeNunzio Group of Pinellas County.

Voters in November 2022 approved the sale of the bluff parcels to Gotham and DeNunzio after they presented concepts for two apartment towers and a hotel. But in early 2023, the developers asked the city to consider a scaled-back plan due to rising costs.

It was during this time that Ikajevs and Porbeni said they began talking to Agami about selling him their properties.

“An unstable government is the worst enemy of investors; it does send the wrong message,” he said.

Poirrier pushed back on the idea the government is unstable. Before 2021, Clearwater had the same city manager and city attorney for more than 20 years. She said the city has worked through recent turnover by moving transformative projects forward.

“We certainly have a vision of having an active and vibrant downtown and we’re trying to create spaces and demand and opportunities that are going to support that,” she said.

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