Apr 28, 2017

You Paid For It: Scientology trying to kill $26 million Clearwater aquarium funding after land sale dispute

Mark Douglas
April 25, 2017


CLEARWATER, Fla. (WFLA) — The Church of Scientology has declared an economic war on Clearwater Marine Aquarium and the stakes are high — $26 million in tourism tax funding that the church wants to block at Tuesday’s Pinellas County Commission meeting.

The church’s anger stems from a land purchase dispute involving a dirt parking lot next to Clearwater City Hall. The aquarium recently defied the church by selling that land to the City of Clearwater on April 20 for $4.25 million and rejecting Scientology’s $15 million offer.

City of Clearwater leaders want to develop the 1.4 acre parcel as part of its $50 million Imagine Clearwater plan to pump new life and commerce into the city’s downtown waterfront. The church wanted to buy the empty lot on the corner of Pierce St. and Osceola Ave. in order to build a pool and playground area for its Oak Cove religious retreat located next door. The church insists it is a critical element to its self-funded downtown development plan.

A scathing letter sent to the Pinellas Commission Monday by Scientology Attorney Monique Yingling accuses Clearwater Marine Aquarium of fiscal foolhardiness and gouging taxpayers. “Astoundingly, CMA rejected $15 million in private funding, and is now essentially asking to recoup that amount from taxpayer funds,” Yingling wrote.

The 7-page letter goes on to allege the aquarium is swimming in money due to the popularity of Winter the Dolphin and pays its CEO David Yates an exorbitant salary compared to other aquarium managers across the nation.

Yingling’s letter also includes a report by USF Economics Professor Philip Porter that concludes the aquarium’s claims of economic impact, which form the basis of its $26 million tourist tax funding request, are grossly exaggerated and based on a study that includes a “massive and false claim.”

“Because the study is biased and self-serving, its claims offer no good basis for decision-making and should be ignored,” Porter writes in an executive summary of his report..

At Tuesday afternoon’s Pinellas County Commission meeting, commissioners will vote on a recommendation by Commission Chair Janet Long to fund the Clearwater Marine Aquarium $26 million over a 3-year period with proceeds from the county’s bed tax. Long’s memo calling for funding is based on a recommendation from the Pinellas County Tourist Development Council.

According to TDC records, the bed tax funding will be used for the Clearwater aquarium’s planned expansion estimated to cost $53 million. The TDC study claims the Clearwater aquarium has a total annual economic impact of $674.7 million, a figure that the Church of Scientology and its experts vigorously dispute.


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