The latest downtown revitalization plan unveiled this week calls for walkable green spaces and a bustling town square peppered with outdoor dining and retail shops to fill the vacant storefronts. But the 146-page blueprint the city paid consultants nearly $400,000 to write makes no mention of the Church of Scientology’s future implications on downtown revival as the largest property owner and an international institution with a $917 million economic impact locally, according to one study. Since first arriving in Clearwater in 1975, the Church of Scientology has accumulated $250 million in real estate, occupying whole blocks of downtown and building its worldwide spiritual headquarters steps from City Hall. None of the five City Council members said they believe Scientology’s substantial presence is a relevant factor in strategizing for revitalization or recruiting private investment. If the city can reshape downtown’s waterfront into a viable attraction, they say, the business community will follow. “We’re trying to draw people downtown regardless of the elephant in the room,” said council member Hoyt Hamilton. “If you put the right project down there, people are going to come no matter what.” Mayor George Cretekos acknowledged he has no idea how much more the church intends to grow or which parcels may end up being bought by Scientology instead of a restaurant or business. In 10 years as an elected official, he’s had only two meetings with Scientology leader David Miscavige. In 2014, Urban Land Institute consultants hired to write a $125,000 analysis of downtown revival said city leaders and the Church of Scientology must communicate better for the district to thrive. City Manager Bill Horne said success of events like the weekly Pierce Street farmers market, Blast Friday block parties and concerts in Coachman Park prove people will come downtown when there is a reason to visit. The problem is how to establish a thriving retail district to draw foot traffic on a consistent basis. He said this latest master plan could be that catalyst. The lush green space, gardens, walking and biking trails, and an attractive plaza bordering the waterfront envisioned in the plan could be the centerpiece that draws visitors regardless of the church’s presence.
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