Apr 12, 2017

Scientology leader David Miscavige presents Clearwater retail plan to downtown stakeholders

Tracey McManus, Times Staff Writer
Tampa Bay Times
April 12, 2017

CLEARWATER — Scientology leader David Miscavige hosted downtown stakeholders and parishioners at the Fort Harrison Hotel on Tuesday evening for an invitation-only presentation about his retail and entertainment plan for downtown.

After a reception on the rooftop patio, guests were seated for the nearly two-hour presentation where Miscavige described the church's plan to pay for a facade redesign of Cleveland Street storefronts between Osceola and Myrtle avenues. He also described the church's ongoing use of consultants to recruit retailers, restaurants and other businesses to downtown, which if achieved, would be deployed all at once, said Signworx owner Leif Oskarsson.

"Sitting there and watching this just stunned everybody," Oskarsoon said of the video and renderings. "It was so gorgeous."

Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw denied a Tampa Bay Times reporter's request to attend the meeting. Miscavige has not made a presentation to the general public but held private meetings with the City Council about the plan March 14.

Miscavige said the redevelopment could cost about $8 million and the church has already invested about $30 million in the plan, which has included hiring of the consultants and purchasing key downtown properties in recent months, said former Mayor Frank Hibbard, who said he accepted the day-of invitation "so I could formulate an informed opinion."

Hibbard said "it was not explicit but it was implied" by Miscavige that this Scientology-funded overhaul of downtown hinged on the church's ability to buy a 1.4 acre waterfront lot owned by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

The city is scheduled to vote on buying the property at the corner of Osceola Avenue and Pierce Streets on April 20 for $4.25 million. The aquarium rejected the church's $15 million offer for the property earlier this month, opting instead to sell to the city.

The church wants the property, which is adjacent to its 13-story Oak Cove religious retreat to build a swimming pool, playground and other accommodations for parishioners. The city has included the lot, which also sits across the street from City Hall, in its 10-year $55 million downtown waterfront revitalization plan that was unveiled in February.

"It comes down to execution and commitment and the way the city and the church are right now, I think some things have to change," Hibbard said. "There's trust issues with all parties involved. And I think to make something like that work, I don't know if you can overcome them. I think the church needs to show the public the plan and let the court of public opinion really drive whether this is viable or not."

Alongside downtown business and property owners, the church also hosted actors and noted Scientologists John Travolta, Kelly Preston, Kirstie Alley and pianist Chick Corea.

Downtown property owner Terry Tsafatinos said the plan was impressive and the church's offer to bankroll the infrastructure and recruiting efforts is intriguing. But he said the city and church would have to work together for it to come to fruition, and he said that relationship isn't where it should be.

"I'd like to see it happen, but it's a dream," Tsafatinos said. "I don't believe the church could do by itself and I don't think the city can do by itself either."

This is a developing story. Check tampabay.com later for a complete report.

Contact Tracey McManus at tmcmanus@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.


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