Clearwater leaders growing impatient with Church of Scientology, parishioners over vacant property downtown

City Council members say the closure of the 400 and 500 blocks of Cleveland Street have stimulated downtown activity, but in order for downtown to be the vibrant destination they want it to be, they say something needs to happen to the many properties the Church of Scientology and its parishioners have purchased and left vacant.

CLEARWATER — In the past three years, the Church of Scientology and its parishioners reportedly engaged in a quiet series of land purchases essentially doubling the church’s footprint downtown.

Many of those properties mysteriously remain vacant, and city leaders are growing impatient that the owners are not doing their part to help breathe life into a struggling downtown.

They’ve grown so frustrated, in fact, that they are now exploring options on either providing incentives or penalties to owners who do not show any intent of moving forward.

During a meeting of the Community Redevelopment Agency on Sept. 14, City Council members’ discussion turned toward improving the reputation of downtown.

They praised the success of the closure of two blocks of Cleveland Street, and Mayor Frank Hibbard called for a professional survey seeking residents’ perception and reservations about downtown.

“I would like to get some statistics and some anecdotal evidence of what keeps people away,” Hibbard said. “I think we know Scientology is certainly one of the factors, but I want to be able to measure that over time and see if perceptions are, in fact, changing.”

That’s when Council member Hoyt Hamilton said it was time to discuss the “elephant in the room,” referring to the church’s plans for the numerous properties it owns.

“Is there a way for us to contact each and every one of those new property owners and just flat-out ask, ‘What is your plan for that property, and if you have any plan is there anything we can do to help you?’” he asked city staff. “And if all we get is, ‘Well, I don’t really know what I want to do with it,’ then I want to ask the question, then why the hell did you buy it?”

Hamilton, who owns the Palm Pavilion on Clearwater Beach, said if he was going to buy a piece of commercial property, then he would have plans for it before he acquired it and would head straight to the city to start the permitting process.

“We’re not experiencing that,” he said. “People are buying commercial properties and making no effort to put something on it.”

CRA Director Amanda Thompson said the city can’t compel people to answer, but staff was already planning a large advertising campaign for downtown businesses. But in order to take part in the marketing effort that aims to attract investors, those property owners would need to provide certain information.

City Manager Bill Horne asked if the council wanted to take a step further and penalize owners who do nothing with their properties, adding that some cities communicate an expectation with owners that they are expected to develop those properties.

Council members agreed that something needed to be done, but Mayor Frank Hibbard said he hoped to implement both carrots and sticks while making sure to respect property rights to stay on solid legal ground.

City Attorney Pam Akin said she would prepare a memo before the next CRA meeting that examined issues related to fines and penalties, but added there were some legal limitations on what can be done beyond code enforcement.

“We can’t run from it, because Scientology is still going to be here,” Council member Mark Bunker said. “And if they continue to do things like buy up all the properties and purposefully leave them empty to sabotage the downtown redevelopment, well, unless we’re going to try to seek some way to put a stop to that, I don’t see how that’s going to change.”

A different approach

Instead of running from it, Bunker said maybe it’s time to start embracing the fascination with Scientology and marketing it.

“There are two things that people think of when they think of Clearwater. It’s the beach and it’s the Church of Scientology’s presence here,” he said. “Now there’s a fascination with Scientology that has led to countless books, TV shows, movies. People are fascinated by it, so maybe Scientology tourism would be a good way to go. I’m not saying we leap into it right now, but I think it’s something to consider the same way Salem embraced the Witch Trials or there’s cities across the country that have haunted tours of … buildings that have ghosts in them.”

He suggested the historical society get involved and set up tours to draw people to downtown.

“Kind of like we dare you to come downtown with a guarantee that you won’t be kidnapped,” he said.

His fellow council members didn’t exactly warm to the idea.

“I don’t know if I’m ready to do Scientology tourism yet. I’m not that avant-garde, I guess,” Hibbard said with a laugh.