There’s no debate that the Church of Scientology’s international spiritual headquarters is downtown’s most dominating presence.
It’s become the largest landowner with at least $245 million worth of property. Its seven story, 300,000 square-foot Flag Building towers over Fort Harrison Avenue and uniformed Sea Org staff members hustle daily between buildings and off buses.
But on Tuesday evening, worldwide viewers of A&E’s Emmy Award winning show Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath got the darkest analysis of what that legacy and presence means for the city.
“Today Scientology has almost achieved its objective of complete subjugation of downtown Clearwater, of the city officials, of taking over vast tracts of the city and turning it into the first Scientology city on Earth,” Mike Rinder, a longtime Scientology spokesman who defected in 2007, said on the show, the eighth episode of the series’ third season.
On Wednesday, current and former officials pushed back on the depiction that downtown is lost and that inaction by elected officials enabled a takeover.
“Clearwater is more than the Church of Scientology,” said Mayor George Cretekos, who did not watch the episode or any of the series, which has chronicled stories of alleged physical and sexual abuse, financial exploitation and a religion that operates like a business.
Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw did not respond to a request for comment but an online church statement said Remini is “spreading provable lies which generate hate, bigotry and violence.”
Cretekos said there is also a thriving technology sector downtown, the Imagine Clearwater redevelopment plan to overhaul 66 waterfront acres adjacent to the downtown core and a growing commercial sector on U.S. 19 that defines the city.
Rinder and Remini were joined by activist and videographer Mark Bunker, Clearwater lawyer Denis deVlaming and former assistant Pinellas County attorney Betsy Steg to deliver a crash course in Clearwater history, from the church’s hostile arrival in 1975 up to its continued accumulation of downtown real estate today.
They chronicled the early years of Scientology’s arrival under a false name and its smear campaign against then-Mayor Gabe Cazares and others, which was exposed in a series of investigative stories that won the St. Petersburg Times, now the Tampa Bay Times, a Pulitzer Prize in 1980.
The group discussed the Clearwater hearings of 1982, where the City Commission interviewed various witnesses about allegations the church was a cult. In 1983, Clearwater Police Lt. Ray Emmons delivered a 10-volume report that declared Scientology a criminal money-making scheme.
The hearings led to a 1983 ordinance that allowed the city to examine finances of Scientology and other churches. But Scientology sued for discrimination, and a judge ruled the ordinance unconstitutional in 1993.
Rinder described that ruling as the point the city decided “this is not a fight we can ever win and crawled into a hole.”
City Council member Hoyt Hamilton denied city officials have bowed to Scientology. Elected officials cannot prohibit a religious organization from buying property or operating its international headquarters in Clearwater, he said.
“To make it sound like the local elected officials are just acquiescing to Scientology, nothing could be further from the truth,” said Hamilton, who is in his fourth term on the council since an appointment in 2001. “We have to play the hand we’re dealt with. The only people that can deal me a better hand than what we have is the federal government. That’s not something the city of Clearwater has the resources to do. The federal government gave them their tax exempt status. The federal government is the only one that can take it away. We can’t do anything to change that.”
The episode showed Rinder and Remini driving past church buildings on Fort Harrison Avenue noting empty storefronts in the downtown core and the presence of uniformed Sea Org workforce members.
They recapped how Scientology’s alleged Fair Game policy to attack and destroy critics continues today, citing the 2017 public campaign against Clearwater Marine Aquarium CEO David Yates’ ethics after he declined Scientology leader David Miscavige’s offer to buy a vacant downtown lot. The aquarium sold the 1.4 acre lot to the city for $4.25 million, passing up Miscavige’s $15 million bid.
PREVIOUS COVERAGE, 2017 RETAIL PLAN: Scientology plans control of downtown Clearwater for retail makeover THE PURCHASE: Clearwater City Council votes 5-0 to buy downtown parcel coveted by the Church of Scientology
“Like everybody else around here, I don’t like being in downtown Clearwater much,” Rinder said on Tuesday’s show. “Just because the whole place is creepy. It’s empty. It feels like people are watching you.”
Frank Hibbard, who served as mayor from 2005 to 2012, said he was unable to watch the episode Tuesday because of a widely reported Spectrum outage that occurred at the beginning of the 9 p.m. airing. Joe Durkin, spokesman for Spectrum’s parent company Charter Communications said “a fiber cut from an unaffiliated third party impacted our TV services on some channels last night and we quickly restored service.”
But Hibbard said he disagrees with Rinder’s statement that Scientology has almost achieved “a complete subjugation of downtown Clearwater.”
While the church owns significant real estate, there are still businesses and employees “that have nothing to do with Scientology.”
“I’m looking out my window, I’m looking at the Presbyterian church, I’m looking at City Hall, I’m looking at the county building,” Hibbard said from his financial advisory office in One Clearwater Tower.
“Tourists that come to Clearwater Beach for instance wouldn’t even know Scientology exists unless they came to downtown or they looked to their right as they were driving on Cleveland Street and happened to catch a glimpse of the Super Power building and understand what it is.”
There is not consistent foot traffic because there is currently no array of retail and restaurants. It’s “a chicken or the egg” scenario, however, whether the void is because of Scientology’s presence or whether Scientology’s presence is able to dominate because there is no other draw for the general public, he said.
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.