CLEARWATER – Amid growing concerns over the purchase of a parcel of land adjacent to City Hall, residents, business owners and Scientologists urged city leaders to look past any religious bias they might feel and focus on the redevelopment of downtown Clearwater.
It was a sentiment shared by the majority of residents who spoke during a regular meeting of the Clearwater City Council on April 6 at City Hall.
The property, located at 301 Pierce St., is 1.4 acres and is atop the Clearwater bluff. The property was purchased by Clearwater Marine Aquarium a number of years ago in anticipation of building a new aquarium in downtown Clearwater. CMA, instead, decided to renovate its current facility on Island Estates and put the property on the market.
With the recent approval of the city’s downtown bluffs master plan, city leaders agreed earlier this year to move forward with the purchase of the property, which would give the city a contiguous tract of 2.1 acres of property along the north and south sides of Pierce Street between Osceola Avenue and the waterfront.
However, the city delayed the purchase of the property in March, citing a failure to advertise the intent to purchase correctly.
The delay also came on the heels of a series of private, one-on-one meetings between Church of Scientology leader David Miscavige, who outlined plans that would revitalize downtown Cleveland Street and is focused on developing retail businesses and the creation of a downtown entertainment center.
Miscavige also implied in meetings with city officials that the Church would be willing to fund – perhaps even at 100 percent – the facade overhaul for the Cleveland Street District in an effort to update old buildings that have a lot of character.
In return for this, according to council members, the Church is seeking to purchase the Pierce Street lot to develop it into a swimming pool and playground for guests of its adjacent hotel The Oak Cove.
A number of speakers during Thursday’s meeting urged city council members to take the deal.
“From an economic development perspective, it seems like the city has the option of doing nothing on the property next to the Oak Cove property on Osceola Avenue,” said Brett Miller. “And in exchange for that, if the Church does have the opportunity to buy it from the aquarium, it goes back on the tax rolls for the first time in 31 years. They want to develop that property for children coming to stay at the hotel with a swimming pool and a playground – just like we would do for any hotel on the beach.
“In addition to that, the Church of Scientology is trying to invest upwards of $30 million downtown to create an economic engine along Cleveland Street,” Miller continued. “This seems like a deal that cannot be turned down. I honestly don’t understand the pushback, quite frankly.”
Business owner and resident Diane Stein said her religious beliefs and the beliefs of others in Clearwater should not be a reason for the city not to let the Church of Scientology further invest in the community.
“I really want to see downtown thrive,” Stein said. “As far as I can tell, my religious beliefs are why it’s not happening. The fact that I’m a Scientologist, the fact that it’s the Church of Scientology that wants to buy this property, is an issue, no matter what anybody is saying – behind closed doors, not behind closed doors. It really doesn’t matter. It just honestly seems to boil down to the fact that no one wants Scientology here. Well, we’re not going anywhere.
“Our help just doesn’t seem to be wanted or accepted,” she continued, adding that the church has invested tens of millions of dollars into Clearwater. “As a voter, as a tax payer, I honestly feel it’s time that everybody just drops everything and we work together. We could make Clearwater an amazing place. We could make Clearwater the gem of Florida. And everyone in this room – you guys could make it happen.”
Shannon Seymour told council members that she was privy to the plans outlined by Miscavige and feels it is a win-win for all parties involved.
“I’m concerned with downtown and I have seen the plans for the potential renovations and the retail that could be moved in that Mr. Miscavige has gone over with all of you or most of you,” Seymour said. “It’s very exciting to me. I think all of our property values will go up and Clearwater in general to have a downtown like that is so important.
But not everyone who spoke was in favor of the Church of Scientology, which recently upped its offer for the property to $15 million, purchasing the downtown property.
“Clearwater was not built by Scientology,” said resident Rebecca Kaye. “There are other people in this city that are not Scientologists. This property that they are talking about building a playground and a pool for the kids – nobody who is a non-Scientologist will be invited there. You can’t go get a room at the Fort Harrison if you are a tourist coming to town who is a non-Scientologist.
“I just don’t want you to pander to these people anymore,” she continued. “Don’t be open-minded. They’re not open-minded. Scientologists are not open-minded people.”
City council members are set to vote on the purchase of the property during its regular meeting on April 20 at City Hall.