This is a defining moment that tests the independence and courage of the Clearwater City Council and the leaders of one of the city's venerable institutions, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. The Church of Scientology has pressured them to cancel the aquarium's sale to the city of a key downtown parcel by offering millions for the property, fancy downtown redevelopment plans and private meetings with Scientology leader David Miscavige. The choice is clear: Stand up to the intimidation and complete the land sale — or surrender and cede downtown to Scientology forever.
The City Council will vote Thursday night on a $4.25 million contract with the aquarium to buy the 1.4 acre vacant lot adjacent to City Hall along the downtown bluff. The aquarium bought the property as part of a plan to combine it with the City Hall property and build a new aquarium that could have been the cornerstone for a revitalized downtown. Voters took a reasonable leap of faith and approved the deal, but it ultimately did not work out and the aquarium has agreed to sell the unneeded parcel to the city.
Scientology, of course, won't take no for an answer. It has upped its offer to the aquarium for the land next to its 13-story Oak Cove retreat from $12.5 million to $15 million — more than three times the city's offer. Miscavige also has met with City Council members individually and held invitation-only meetings to pitch Scientology's plan to pay for a renovation of downtown Cleveland Street's facade, recruit retailers and fill storefronts. The unsubtle message: Let us buy the land, and Scientology will be your downtown savior.
Let Scientology buy this land, and write off downtown Clearwater forever as a fully occupied territory. The city could never sell the City Hall site next door to an independent developer, and Scientology would be waiting to scoop it up as well. If Clearwater has learned anything since Scientology secretly invaded the city four decades ago, it is that the church cannot be trusted and is not interested in equal partnerships. It already is the largest downtown property owner, and it bought more land last year after telling city officials it wouldn't.
Voters placed their faith in the aquarium and the city when they supported their vision on the bluff. The aquarium has an obligation to repay that faith by sticking with its contract to sell the vacant land to the city. And City Council members have a duty to approve the contract and act in the best interest of all of their constituents, not just Scientology members. Clearwater's downtown should not be for sale at any price, and to cave now would dishonor elected officials and civic leaders who were brave enough over the years to stand up to intimidation from such a powerful outside force.
Scientology wants total control, and a spokesman's claim this week that it is fulfilling an Urban Land Institute suggestion that the city and the church work together is laughable. Scientology is absurdly aggressive now because it recognizes downtown's tide finally could be turning. The downtown Capitol Theatre operated by Ruth Eckerd Hall is a jewel. Clearwater and Pinellas County are discussing building a new government center together, which would free the City Hall site and the vacant land at issue for major redevelopment. A $55 million plan to overhaul the waterfront and improve an outdoor concert venue has been approved. And the dramatic makeover of Clearwater Beach could provide new opportunities for downtown as tourists shuttle back and forth.
The Clearwater City Council should approve the contract to buy the aquarium's land tonight and move forward. Succumb to Scientology's pressure now, and write off downtown for good as L. Ron Hubbardville.