CLEARWATER, Fla. (WFLA) – Ten days from now, the Clearwater City Council will vote whether or not to spend $4.25 million dollars on a land purchase that essentially marks the first building block of its ambitious Imagine Clearwater plan to redevelop the city’s downtown waterfront.
If only it were that easy.
The purchase of a parcel owned by the Clearwater Aquarium, located just south of City Hall, is wrought with controversy and conflict, because the Church of Scientology wants that same land and is reportedly willing to pay $15 million for it, more than three times the city’s offer.
Late Monday, the Church sent 8 on Your Side a statement insisting it has been trying to acquire the 1.4 acre parcel in question for the past decade, and claims the city solicited a “confidential” deal in February to buy the land from the Aquarium.
“The City solicited this offer despite knowing the Church had an outstanding offer pending with CMA (Clearwater Marine Aquarium) and despite knowing the Church’s need for the property to complete its Oak Cove facilities,” the statement said.
The Aquarium insists it has been committed to give the city first dibs on the purchase for the past year and a half.
“The city made it clear about a year and a half ago they wanted to buy the property, so we held firm to that. We do what we say and say what we do. We gave them a written offer prior to any offer coming in from anybody else,” said Aquarium CEO David Yates. He insists it is just one element of a long running partnership with the city involving other deals and considerations. ” All that together, this clearly makes sense to us,” Yates said.
Imagine Clearwater—a strategic plan by consultants commissioned at a cost to taxpayers of $400,000 by the city– envisions a $50 million or more makeover of the downtown waterfront district to revitalize it and spur new commercial growth and housing.
The parking lot, wedged between City Hall and Oak Cove, is a key part of that plan, although there is no specific mention of the parcel in the Imagine Clearwater proposal.
“Consistent with the Imagine Clearwater plan, the city has determined that that it ought to acquire the property,” said Michael Delk, Clearwater’s Director of Planning and Development. “I think that is what’s called for in the plan.”
Clearwater’s downtown business district has existed—quite literally—in the shadow of Scientology’s World Headquarters for years. Imagine Clearwater is a renewed effort to redefine that identity to attract visitors who are not already in Clearwater because of their affiliation with Scientology.
At the same time, Scientology’s leader David Miscavige has been privately lobbying the Mayor and City Council with his own grand vision for a downtown facelift with church investments, and he promises to revitalize much of the same area.
Now, suddenly, the Church’s tone is changing in the wake of the Aquarium’s pending deal with the City to sell the 1.4 acre parcel that will be voted on by the City Council April 20th.
“The Church obviously cannot compete with this inappropriately intimate relationship between the City and the CMA and will not be making any further offers,” the statement said.
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