When the Church of Scientology secretly purchased the dilapidated 11-story Fort Harrison Hotel in this western Florida city in 1975, locals didn’t know what to make of their new neighbors.
It would be the following year before the church was publicly identified as the owner of the hotel, which would be renovated to become Scientology’s international headquarters. The church, meanwhile, began scooping up other prime properties – dozens of them, including entire blocks – throughout downtown Clearwater.
So it was in Clearwater, a city of 110,000 that is now Scientology’s international headquarters. County records show that the church owns 66 properties in the city, where an estimated 12,000 Scientologists live. City officials have long grappled with fears that the church’s influence was growing too deep.
All that came to a head last month, when the city of Clearwater went head to head with the church in a struggle over a strategically located parcel of vacant land. The city won, despite offering vastly less than the church was willing to pay. But the repercussions shook City Hall and the highest levels of the church, which has a reputation for sharp elbows and for winning at any cost.
Was the battle for this parcel of land an indication of the church’s unspoken intent to consolidate political power in Clearwater? Residents wondered. Conspiracy theories are nothing new when it comes to the Church of Scientology.
The Fort Harrison Hotel is located steps from Clearwater City Hall, close to the downtown waterfront area, where the city is planning a 10-year, $55-million development called “Imagine Clearwater.” The project is aimed at revitalizing a forlorn area that is pocked with vacant storefronts and half-finished buildings.
Just offshore, connected to downtown by a causeway, is a glimmer of what Clearwater could be. The Clearwater Marine Aquarium is a nonprofit marine rescue and rehabilitation facility that draws some 800,000 visitors annually and is Clearwater’s top attraction after the city’s famed beaches. It also was at the center of the dispute between the city and the church.
The aquarium owned a 1.4-acre vacant lot that is bordered on three sides by City Hall and two church properties — the Fort Harrison Hotel and a 13-story condominium tower. Two years ago, the Church of Scientology became interested in buying it and building a swimming pool and playground for its members.
But the aquarium, which is in the middle of a $54-million fund-raising campaign to significantly expand the marine rescue center, had previously agreed to sell the lot to the city. The small plot suddenly vaulted in value.
The church is one of the largest taxpayers in Pinellas County and is widely regarded as a good steward of its properties. A 2014 Florida State University study found that it brought $917 million into Clearwater that year. Still, many people in the city are suspicious of Scientology, which has long battled a reputation as a cult, and hasn’t been seen as the friendliest of neighbors.
The Fort Harrison Hotel is ringed with security cameras and is closed to the public, despite its three restaurants and ballroom. Several questionable deaths and hundreds of 911 calls from the building through the years haven’t helped the church’s image.
Some non-Scientology locals also fret that tourists are put off by the airline-style uniforms that some Scientologists wear.
“I think most of the locals might be used to seeing them in their uniforms, but I also think tourists are like, ‘What is this?’” said April Robinson, a Clearwater resident.
The city of Clearwater had various ideas in mind for the aquarium’s vacant lot, including a hotel, Mayor George Cretekos said in an interview. It was willing to pay $4.25 million, roughly the assessed valuation of the land. So were the Scientologists.
In early March, the church upped the ante: Scientology leader David Miscavige personally raised the church’s offer to $12.5 million. The aquarium said no, citing an agreement with the city.
On March 14, Miscavige met individually with Clearwater City Council members at the Fort Harrison Hotel, offering a sweetener: The church would fund an $8-million renovation of storefronts and facades along Cleveland Street, a portion of which has many retail spaces sitting empty.
Many downtown business owners were said to favor the plan or at least were willing to hear Miscavige out. But city leaders were resistant. “If they really wanted to help improve Cleveland Street, then why not just go do it?” Cretekos said in an interview in his office.
In early April, the church again raised its offer — this time to $15 million, along with the $8-million Cleveland Street revitalization offer. Put together, it amounted to more than five times what the city was offering to spend.
Again, the aquarium declined, prompting the church to question the aquarium board’s fiduciary responsibility.
On April 11, Miscavige held an invitation-only event on the Fort Harrison Hotel’s rooftop patio for community business leaders and other prominent Clearwater figures. Also there were Scientology celebrities, including John Travolta, Kirstie Alley and pianist Chick Corea, according to the Tampa Bay Times. Miscavige gave a roughly two-hour presentation, replete with graphics, citations of noteworthy architects and building consultants.
Bledar “Tony” Starova, who owns a pizzeria on Cleveland Street, was at the event and was impressed by the church’s plan.
“It looked very good, and I was hoping it happens,” he said by telephone. “But, really, this is the first time [the city and the church] are talking to each other. I liked the church’s plan, but I think the city should be the leader of these things.”
On April 20, the City Council unanimously voted in favor of buying the plot for the original $4.25 million.
“We are satisfied with the outcome,” aquarium Chief Executive David Yates said in a telephone interview. “We committed the lot to the city very early on and we stuck by that commitment.”
The church was not satisfied. Ben Shaw, a Scientology spokesman, wrote a letter to the Tampa Bay Times calling the City Council “arrogant” and the vote a case of “manifest obstruction.”
“Whose votes do not count? Whose money does not count? The bigotry against Scientologists is barefaced,” he said.
The church’s chief counsel, Monique Yingling, also sent a letter to the Pinellas County Commission urging it to block $26 million in tourism tax funds earmarked for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
“Astoundingly, [the Clearwater Marine Aquarium] rejected $15 million in private funding, and is now essentially asking to recoup that amount from taxpayer funds!” she wrote.
On April 25, the County Commission approved the $26-million grant.
Shaw has since said that the church, while disappointed, has moved on.
“The church was interested in buying a piece of land from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium; the aquarium sold the property to the city,” he said in an email. “That is the end of that story.”
Some downtown business owners, however, say the matter is far from dead: Church members, they believe, launched a boycott of downtown businesses after the vote.
“The business people have been telling me they’re not coming into their stores,” Clearwater City Council member Bob Cundiff said in a phone interview. “I even suggested maybe they put up a sign at the entrance of their stores or businesses, saying uniformed shoppers get a discount.”
Shaw said the business owners were wrong.
“There is absolutely no boycott of downtown businesses by church members,” he said. “There has never been a boycott.”
In 2014, the city commissioned a report by an independent advisory panel working for the Urban Land Institute. Among its goals was to determine how the city could best revitalize the downtown core. It concluded that dysfunction between the city and the Church of Scientology was threatening Balkanization and the city’s decline.
“They are the two largest landowners in the study area; they command the largest budgets; and they have the most influence over public opinion,” author Brad Rogers wrote. “These two organizations must become partners in the future of the city. If they cannot, no one else will.”
Neuhaus is a special correspondent. Times staff writers Kim Christensen and Jon Schleuss in Los Angeles contributed to this report.