Scientology’s David Miscavige discusses “partnership” with Clearwater

After a controversial 46-year history in Clearwater, three senior city officials and Church of Scientology leader David Miscavige met this week to discuss how to start over.

The meeting on Monday at a church office on North Fort Harrison Avenue served as an introduction between the two newest administrators of Miscavige and Clearwater: City Manager Jon Jennings, who took office on Nov. 8, and City Attorney David Margolis, who took office on Oct. 25 Began Mayor Frank Hibbard also took part in the meeting.

City Manager Jon Jennings [ City of Clearwater ]

“I heard loud and clear from (Miscavige) that he wanted to work with the city,” Jennings said. “In my view, partnership really means that we leave the past behind in terms of any sharpness and so on and build a place of trust where we can work together.”

This partnership would primarily relate to the redevelopment of downtown, where Scientology has had its international spiritual headquarters since 1975 and where church corporations have acquired large lots in recent years. During a 3½ hour sit-down Miscavige reintroduced photo renderings and a video simulation of the downtown retail plan developed by Scientology in 2017, according to Hibbard.

The plan, which was created without any city involvement, called for Scientology to pay to renovate building facades in four blocks of Cleveland Street and use consultants to recruit high-end retailers for empty storefronts. This included building an entertainment complex along the vacant lot on Myrtle Avenue with a movie theater, bowling alley, and restaurant.

Miscavige confirmed at the time that the Church had used limited liability companies to purchase the land on Myrtle Avenue, an abandoned jewelry store and car garage, nine-story office tower, and historic theater on North Fort Harrison Avenue for the retail plan.

In March 2017, Miscavige showed the plan to members of the city council and then city manager Bill Horne in one-on-one meetings. In mid-April 2017, he invited about 70 hand-picked downtown stakeholders and business owners to give a presentation of the plan at Scientology’s Fort Harrison Hotel. Miscavige declined to release the plan to the general public.

In exchange for redeveloping downtown, Miscavige called on the city to abandon its plan to purchase 1.4 acre property on Pierce Street, between the former City Hall and Scientology’s religious sanctuary Oak Cove.

In a statement to the Tampa Bay Times On April 17, 2017, Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw confirmed that Miscavige’s retail plan is contingent on Scientology acquiring the property to build a pool and other facilities for community members.

“Mr. Miscavige also informed downtown owners, business owners, and stakeholders that the Church will redeem the downtown area by $ 55 million by the end of 2017,” Shaw wrote.

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But the city council unanimously voted on April 20, 2017 to buy the property to include it in its now $ 84 million downtown waterfront redevelopment project, Imagine Clearwater, which broke ground in August.

After the vote, Miscavige cut communications with city officials for two and a half years. During this period, Limited Liability Companies run by Scientology parishioners bought 100 lots in downtown. About half of them are still vacant. In November 2019, Miscavige began meeting with city officials again.

As of July 2019, community-managed limited liability companies have purchased 45 properties in the North Marina Area, near downtown, another priority redevelopment area in the city.

Shaw previously said the Church did not stage the acquisitions in the downtown area or in the North Marina.

Jennings and Hibbard said they did not ask Miscavige during their meeting on Monday if he controls the properties owned by limited liability companies.

However, it was clear that the properties could flow into a future renovation partnership.

“You can bring people in on a master plan,” Jennings said. “It is up to him and the church to group properties together if we really want to go in that direction. … It wasn’t about going into detail about who owns what. “

Jennings said they also failed to confirm what Miscavige was asking for in return for the cleanup this time.

“That would be part of the negotiations,” said Jennings. “He has interests like the city has interests, so these are all things that we should work on together.”

Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw did not respond to a request for comment on Monday’s meeting. However, Hibbard said Miscavige provided city officials with copies of a 2014 report from the Urban Land Institute in which consultants wrote that Scientology and the city must “become partners for the future of the city. If they can’t, no one else will. “

Clearwaters Mayor Frank Hibbard
Clearwaters Mayor Frank Hibbard [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Although they didn’t go into the details, Hibbard said a potential land swap could be part of a deal. Hibbard said Miscavige had made it clear that he was still interested in acquiring the property on Pierce Street that the city now owns.

The mayor said he sees certain church-owned lots as prime candidates for a deal to complement the ongoing $ 84 million expansion of the city’s water park. These include: the Scientology Sandcastle religious retreat on North Osceola Avenue, the Coachman Building on Cleveland Street, and what was formerly known as the “Superblock” on North Fort Harrison Avenue across from the main library, which includes a parking lot and church offices.

In his 35 years as a Scientology leader, Miscavige has been known to be in occasional contact with city officials. He sat down a couple of times with two of Jennings’ predecessors, Mike Roberto and Bill Horne. But such meetings are rare.

“It was positive, it was warm, it was educational,” said Hibbard of the meeting on Monday.

Jennings said his next step would be to discuss the meeting with the other four council members and get their feedback on how to advance the partnership with the Church. He said his priority was to act in the “best interests of the city”.

“If you shut down the Church of Scientology when some property developer came into town and they owned X lots of lots and they wanted to work on a new design with the city, we would have this meeting every day of the week,” Jennings said. “That’s how I go about it.”

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