Rod Keller has really worn the shoeleather this week getting us the drop on what David Miscavige will face as he continues his takeover attempt of Clearwater, Florida…
On Tuesday, Scientology leader David Miscavige will be meeting individually with Clearwater city councilmembers after the unprecedented one-on-one sitdowns were delayed from last week. The meetings with Miscavige are not only exceedingly rare, but they will occur just two days before the council holds a March 16 vote whether to purchase a 1.4-acre parcel of land on the Clearwater waterfront that is owned by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
The parcel was once intended as the new downtown home of the aquarium, a project Scientology opposed. The aquarium changed its plans, making the land available. The city’s plan to purchase it is part of a waterfront redevelopment effort it calls “Imagine Clearwater.” But Scientology would like to get its hands on the land to build another hotel for its wealthy members who come to town for expensive services.
While Miscavige’s request to meet the city council members struck many as simply an intimidation play, the church then revealed a surprise — it has its own plan to redevelop Clearwater’s downtown with private money, and has been rapidly buying up property to make it happen. (While the Scientology plan was a surprise to the public and apparently also to the council, the plan was presented to the City Manager Bill Horne and the Community Redevelopment Agency director Seth Taylor by Scientology leader David Miscavige back in October.)
It’s a pretty interesting choice facing the city council: Spend considerable taxpayer money to buy the parcel as part of its waterfront redevelopment in defiance of the Church of Scientology, or give up and let Scientology take the land in an auction as the church spends millions to make the downtown area into its own Vatican. (Scientology isn’t telling the public yet, however, just what outside businesses it might bring in for this plan.)
While the focus has been on the aquarium parcel, we had another question: What are the properties in the new business district proposed by Scientology, and who owns them? The district is 16 city blocks, bounded by Osceola Ave., Drew St., Myrtle Ave. and Pierce St. with Clearwater’s main street – Cleveland – running down the center. We called up the owners at the properties asking which were for sale and which weren’t to get some idea how much Scientology could really get done.
The district includes property belonging to two religions. Peace Memorial Presbyterian Church on Fort Harrison Ave. is built in the same Mediterranean revival style as Scientology’s Fort Harrison Hotel. Two stained glass windows in the church were designed and signed by famed American artist Louis Comfort Tiffany. The church has not received any offer to purchase the building, and it is not for sale. The Christian Science Reading Room on Cleveland St. is a more modest storefront building. A representative did not respond as to whether or not they have received any interest in purchasing it.
Four levels of government have property in the district. The city owns a large office building and several other properties. A city spokesperson says, “The city is not interested in selling City Hall, the Municipal Services Building, the Municipal Services Parking Garage, the Police Department Headquarters, or the Garden Avenue Parking Garage.” City Hall and the police building are not in the district, but it is clear the city is not planning to sell property to Scientology.
Pinellas County owns an office building on Osceola that is home to the sewer and water department, and shares a parking lot with Peace Memorial. The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority owns a bus terminal and parking lot in the district. The county says it has received no inquiries to purchase either of them. As with most government bodies, they would have to follow a process to declare them redundant and put up for auction rather than sold privately.
The State of Florida operates a probation and parole office on Park St. A representative from the Department of Corrections tells us the office is on a long term lease and, “we would expect anybody who wanted to purchase it would contact us first.” So far they have not been contacted.
The Cleveland Street Post Office building is on the National Register of Historic Places, and also built in the Mediterranean revival style. “At this time, the Clearwater, FL, Cleveland Street Post Office is not for sale and no offers have been reported,” says a spokesperson. But in 2015 the city thought it might be for sale, and then-Vice Mayor Jay Polglaze proposed repurposing the building as a restaurant or as retail space. That plan never solidified, and the Post Office would have to put the building up for auction rather than sell or donate it to the city.
Scientology already has several properties in the district. They include the Coachman and Clearwater Bank buildings on Cleveland, the row of storefronts for social reform groups on Fort Harrison, the West Coast and Flag Crew buildings along Pierce, and the Mariner Hotel on Park. None of the largest or best known buildings, such as the Fort Harrison Hotel, the Super Power building, or the Oak Cove are in the district.
Wealthy Scientologists own a number of large properties, including the SkyView tower (under construction) famous for future penthouse tenant Tom Cruise. There are also the Station Square condo tower and many small offices and shops, such as the One Stoppe Shoppe which for many years has been selling everything a Scientologist in a hurry might need, from toiletries for impoverished Sea Org members to the locking briefcases members must purchase to hold confidential OT materials.
Intermediaries for Scientology recently spent about $11 million in purchasing stores and empty land at the eastern edge of the district. They spent $13 million on the Atrium, a glass office tower on Cleveland. When it was purchased by the city in 1993 it was planned as the new City Hall. A change in elected officials brought an end to that plan and the building was auctioned off shortly after.
There are a number of empty storefronts on Cleveland St., the main street of Clearwater and barometer of economic conditions in town. But most of the available land is along Drew at the north end of the district. There is nothing preventing Scientology from purchasing these properties; they don’t require permission from City Council.
The two main properties left are Clearwater Tower owned by Autoloop, LLC and the Bank of America Building owned by Jacob Real Estate Services of Tampa. Each is about as large as the Atrium. Autoloop bought the Clearwater Tower in September, 2016 to hold their offices and be a center for tech companies in Clearwater, and is unlikely to sell. A representative from Jacob Real Estate tells us, “The [Bank of America] building is not for sale. We have a great deal of interest at the moment from prospective tenants.” Nall Lumber on Drew says they have not received any inquiries. Dunkin Donuts offered a partial denial that they were for sale, “We’re unable to comment on this matter but are proud to serve the community in Clearwater.”
Two much-loved diner-style restaurants are located in the district, Angie’s and Emily’s. Magicar auto detailing is located on Myrtle. Starbucks and the Grindhouse coffee shop are relative newcomers to downtown at Cleveland and Fort Harrison. With abundant empty storefronts along Cleveland it’s hard to imagine Scientology wanting to take over a large number of open businesses. In all of our calls to businesses in the district, we were unable to find any that were for sale, or had received a recent inquiry about selling.
We were also only able to locate one business owner who was aware of or invited to the meeting Scientology has planned for property owners at the Fort Harrison Hotel on Monday night. One business owner who was not invited was unofficially told, “don’t worry” by a Scientology executive. But he is worried. “I have my life savings in this place so I’m getting concerned.”
The big question about Scientology’s business district plan is what do they want from the city of Clearwater. They are offering to eliminate the problem of empty storefronts; they are offering to bring in major retailers and jobs; they are offering to re-landscape Clearwater’s main street, even though it received a $2.9 million landscaping in 2011. They are offering to save the taxpayers about $55 million dollars if they can now decide not to build the Imagine Clearwater complex to revitalize downtown. Individual briefings with David Miscavige on the project for city council take place on Tuesday, just two days before the vote on the aquarium property, which Scientology covets. The timing is certainly right for a deal to be cut.
Something Scientology may want from the city is help from the city in purchasing the remaining vacant properties for a reasonable price. An active Scientologist posted this on Facebook this week, and it reads as if he has been briefed by the church on the project. “Darkened windows that ancient owners are holding onto without improvement hoping for a buyer, usually for the Church to buy at enormous prices.”
Scientology may be finding the remaining vacant properties too expensive. But for the city to help, they would have to use “eminent domain,” a procedure usually reserved for the creation of public utilities, parks, transportation, or other projects in the public good. Using eminent domain to create a retail district for private owners is controversial, but a somewhat similar project was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 2009 case Kelo v. City of New London.
Mark Klein is a Clearwater real estate broker with Klein & Heuchan, a company he helped found in 1983. He thinks the new district will help the Clearwater economy and real estate market. “Any time you slot more people and more retail there’s a synergy. Most of the retail stores there are already owned by members of the church, so it’s not going to be negative; it’s going to be positive. Some people may not think it will be positive because they think there is a controlling factor, but I don’t look at it that way.”
He thinks the plan will boost the real estate market, raising prices. “It’s supply and demand, right now there is too much supply, and this may raise demand.” Klein discounts the idea that Scientology will ask the city for help on the price of properties. “They’ll never get eminent domain. That’s ridiculous.”
It may be ridiculous, but the creation of the retail district is being conducted by David Miscavige himself. Miscavige personally handles projects that are considered impossible by others, such as the resolution of the IRS conflict or the Lisa McPherson wrongful death case. He plans to meet with city council personally before the aquarium vote, and that may indicate there is another part of the plan that the church hasn’t revealed yet.
— Rod Keller
Bonus items from our tipsters
Scenes from the LRH Birthday event last night in Clearwater…
HowdyCon 2017: Denver, June 23-25. Go here to start making your plans.
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Our book, The Unbreakable Miss Lovely: How the Church of Scientology tried to destroy Paulette Cooper, is on sale at Amazon in paperback, Kindle, and audiobook versions. We’ve posted photographs of Paulette and scenes from her life at a separate location. Reader Sookie put together a complete index. More information about the book, and our 2015 book tour, can also be found at the book’s dedicated page.
The Best of the Underground Bunker, 1995-2016 Just starting out here? We’ve picked out the most important stories we’ve covered here at the Undergound Bunker (2012-2016), The Village Voice (2008-2012), New Times Los Angeles (1999-2002) and the Phoenix New Times (1995-1999)
Learn about Scientology with our numerous series with experts…
BLOGGING DIANETICS: We read Scientology’s founding text cover to cover with the help of L.A. attorney and former church member Vance Woodward
UP THE BRIDGE: Claire Headley and Bruce Hines train us as Scientologists
GETTING OUR ETHICS IN: Jefferson Hawkins explains Scientology’s system of justice
SCIENTOLOGY MYTHBUSTING: Historian Jon Atack discusses key Scientology concepts
Other links: Shelly Miscavige, ten years gone | The Lisa McPherson story told in real time | The Cathriona White stories | The Leah Remini ‘Knowledge Reports’ | Hear audio of a Scientology excommunication | Scientology’s little day care of horrors | Whatever happened to Steve Fishman? | Felony charges for Scientology’s drug rehab scam | Why Scientology digs bomb-proof vaults in the desert | PZ Myers reads L. Ron Hubbard’s “A History of Man” | Scientology’s Master Spies | Scientology’s Private Dancer | The mystery of the richest Scientologist and his wayward sons | Scientology’s shocking mistreatment of the mentally ill | Scientology boasts about assistance from Google | The Underground Bunker’s Official Theme Song | The Underground Bunker FAQ
Our Guide to Alex Gibney’s film ‘Going Clear,’ and our pages about its principal figures…
Jason Beghe | Tom DeVocht | Sara Goldberg | Paul Haggis | Mark “Marty” Rathbun | Mike Rinder | Spanky Taylor | Hana Whitfield