CLEARWATER – After weeks of public and private discussions, widespread resident outcry and an enigmatic courting effort by the Church of Scientology, members of the Clearwater City Council finally put to an end the campaign for control over a downtown parcel of land identified as vital to the future growth of the city.
The council voted 5-0 on April 20 to move forward with the $4.25 million purchase of a 1.4-acre parcel of land adjacent to City Hall, which now gives 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.
The unanimous decision effectively blocked the Church of Scientology’s bid for the coveted property, currently owned by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, and cut short the Church’s hopes to develop the parcel into a swimming pool and playground area for guests of its adjacent hotel, The Oak Cove.
The move comes after weeks of lobbying efforts by the Church, including private, one-on-one meetings between city council members and Church leader David Miscavige, who outlined plans that would revitalize downtown Cleveland Street by focusing 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, but only if the city were to back away from its plans to purchase the 301 Pierce St. property.
With the recent approval of the city’s downtown bluffs master plan — Imagine Clearwater — city leaders agreed earlier this year to move forward with the purchase of the property.
However, a failure to advertise the intent to purchase correctly caused the delay in the purchase.
The intervening weeks have played host to fervent discussions on the current footprint and future role the Church has in Clearwater, with a number of residents — on both sides of the issue – speaking their minds to their city leaders.
And there was no shortage of opinions during Thursday’s meeting, which saw a packed crowd full of residents eager to have their say.
Bob Holsinger was the first to speak in favor of the city purchasing the property.
“I’m here to urge the City Council to purchase the Clearwater Marine Aquarium land,” Holsinger said. “In light of the purchases that have been made by Scientology, the vast amount of Clearwater property, I feel the city is slowly losing control of the city’s destiny and it’s going to the Church of Scientology. I feel this issue tonight is also a symbolic issue. It gives the citizens and residents of Clearwater a chance to take the right step, in my opinion, and acquire the property, rather than the Church of Scientology.
“The city of Clearwater– yes,” he continued. “The Church of Scientology – no.”
April Robinson told council members that she wanted to see a more inclusive downtown area that was open to all residents.
“We respect their right to be here, to freely practice whether we agree with it or not,” Robinson said of Church parishioners. “This issue is that we, as a community, and I know I speak for many, want a more vibrant downtown that we can all enjoy – especially if we are footing the bill for the $55 million Imagine Clearwater project, which connects with downtown. How can this happen if we continue to let the Scientologists continue to take over the city? The city must not stand by and let them bully their way into purchasing the lot.”
Robinson urged council members to keep in mind that their decisions would have an impact of how residents voted in upcoming elections.
“The residents of Clearwater are watching you now more than ever,” Robinson said. “How you vote will play out in how we vote for you or against you in the upcoming election cycles. You work for us and represent all of Clearwater. I recognize that the Scientologists are a part of this community. The difference is that we have no issue with them being a part of our community, using and enjoying our mutually beneficial amenities. They are the ones who want us out.”
Marita Lynch said she felt uncomfortable having one organization having such a large footprint on downtown.
“Putting aside all the negative things we’ve heard about the Church of Scientology, no single entity should have such a huge footprint inside our public city,” Lynch said. “The city is meant for all the people who live there and if we purchase this piece of property, that gives us a foothold to create this vision of developing a beautiful Clearwater.”
But not everyone who attended was in favor of the city purchasing the property.
James Floyd said that he was in favor of the Church buying the property if it meant more retail opportunities downtown.
“If this space creates more retail space, I’m in favor of it for the Church,” Floyd said. “We get a lot of support from a lot of people in downtown Clearwater, which has allowed us to expand to another restaurant. So if it results in more retail space, I’d be in favor of it going to the Church.”
Pierce Street resident Georgette Braadt said that although the city has made commendable strides on the beach and along the Highway 19 corridor, the same couldn’t be said for downtown Clearwater.
“As far as stores and commerce downtown, you just don’t see it,” Braadt said. “I shop downtown. I don’t care who owns it. I eat downtown. I think that there are a lot of people who complain about downtown but don’t support downtown.”
Braadt urged city leaders to work with the Church to develop downtown to a greater potential than is currently realized.
“I think that we need development downtown and I think that working in partnership with another large landowner like you – the two top landowners – the only way that Clearwater will grow is if the two largest landowners, the Church and you, work together with the Church to produce a beautiful downtown that we all want to support,” she said.
Following an hour of public input, council members took time to defend their positions on the property.
Vice-Mayor Hoyt Hamilton told constituents that when he makes a decision, he considers what’s best for the entire Clearwater community.
“When I first ran for this board, I was asked, ‘How will you vote regarding the Church of Scientology?’” Hamilton said. “I answered that question to both members of the Church and people who were not members of the Church the same way – I will vote on every single item based on what is best for the majority of the people. Period. If that benefits the Church, so be it; if it doesn’t, that’s the way it is.”
Mayor George Cretekos thanked residents for speaking out and taking part in the governmental process.
“The fact that you care about this city means an awful lot us, to city staff and more importantly to your neighbors because it is our community,” Cretekos said. “I want each one of us to remember this one key principal and that is – we don’t always agree with other. But even when we don’t, if we let that separate us, if we let that be a barrier, then we will never get anything done. This council, and this staff, is dedicated to getting something done.
“All of us,” he continued, “whether we are Scientologists, Presbyterian, Methodist, Jewish, Muslim, or in my case, Greek Orthodox, we will be able to celebrate a Clearwater that truly is bright and beautiful from the bay to the beach.”
Logan Mosby is editor of the Clearwater Beacon. She can be reached at lmosby@TBNweekly.com or by calling 727-397-5563, ext. 304.