May 1, 2017

Column: Clearwater Marine Aquarium responds to Church of Scientology's attack

David Yates and John Draheim, special to the Times
Tampa Bay Times
April 28, 2017

The Church of Scientology went out of its way last week to disparage the good reputation and hard work of our popular Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Perhaps not coincidentally, this comes after the aquarium refused to break its written commitment and decided to sell a piece of property we owned in downtown Clearwater to the city instead of the church.

The Scientologists' attack on us was mean-spirited, vindictive and misleading to anyone not aware of the facts. We want to set the record straight by sharing the documented facts and truth about the aquarium and its track record of protecting and growing our mission as a venerable marine rescue and education center.

The decision to sell the downtown parcel to the city of Clearwater came after two years of discussions with the city. The parcel we sold is planned for use as part of a $55 million waterfront revitalization of downtown Clearwater, which includes redeveloping the land for a possible hotel as well as new downtown residences.

For us, the sale of the property comes in the middle of our own $54 million campaign to renovate the aquarium's facilities on Island Estates. Both of the ambitious projects are directed squarely at making the highest and best use of public space — something that will benefit all the residents of our area, in addition to our tourists. Scientology's stated intention for the land, which borders their Oak Cove religious retreat, was to build a swimming pool and playground and other amenities exclusively for church parishioners.

Days after we completed the sale of the downtown property to the city on April 21, Scientology sent a long, scathing letter to Pinellas County commissioners with copies to the Clearwater City Council as well as others, questioning the impact the Clearwater Marine Aquarium has on regional economic development and calling into question our nonprofit status.

All of this came on the first business day after we closed on our sale of the property to the city and the day before the Pinellas County Commission met to consider the aquarium's portion of bed tax dollars paid by county visitors — primarily tourists, not residents — whose presence in downtown Clearwater is an economic boon to the area. Indeed, a previous study conducted by the University of South Florida St. Petersburg College of Business found nearly 73 percent of aquarium patrons said it was one of the main reasons for their visit to Pinellas County.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium is a successful nonprofit marine rescue center that cares for hundreds of animals each year, attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists annually and reaches millions each year through its various media platforms that showcase Clearwater. We are pleased to do our part to drive tourism and contribute to our area's economy.

As a nonprofit, we are good stewards of all of our funds — public and private. The aquarium is funded substantially by ticket sales and has received no financial grants from the city of Clearwater since 2010. It also receives no grant funds from Pinellas County for its general operations. County funding is solely for our sea turtle nesting work and production support for our Web series performed pursuant to contracts with the county.

Further, the salaries of our staff and leadership are all benchmarked — and are in line with — similar organizations of our size and scope. In fact, Charity Navigator, the nation's largest independent evaluator of charities, ranks the Clearwater Marine Aquarium among the top 4 percent of all nonprofits nationally and has so for the past six years.

Despite the Scientologists' disparagement, our financial records have been professionally audited and certified and are open to the public. Our tax filings are accurate and timely. We pay every tax we owe, and we retain skilled tax and audit experts to make sure this is done year after year. These are the facts.

The Clearwater Marine Aquarium did not seek to slight or pick a fight with the Church of Scientology when we sold our downtown land to the city instead of the church. Instead, we believe we did the right thing for the aquarium and for the residents of Clearwater and Pinellas County through that sale. The aquarium does not wish to quarrel with its neighbors, but the church, along with all of our neighbors, has the right to the documented facts and the truth.

David Yates is the CEO of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. John Draheim is the aquarium board's chair.

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