CLEARWATER (FOX 13) - The City of Clearwater has voted to buy land owned by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium for $4.25 million, effectively blocking a bid from the Church of Scientology to purchase the property for $15 million.
The decision whether or not to buy the property was seen by some as symbolic for the future of downtown Clearwater and the city's relationship with the church.
The Thursday night meeting was a packed house, with people eager to weigh in on the decision before votes were cast. City officials gave about an hour for public comment, but realized there would not be enough time for everyone to speak, so they split the room.
Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos asked speakers to stand on either side of the room. On one side, those who wanted the city to buy the property. One the other, those against the city buying the land. The majority seemed to be in favor of the purchase, but it was unclear if the faction represented any particular feelings about the church.
Council members made brief statements before the mayor called for a vote. Councilmember Doreen Caudell read from the Imagine Clearwater plan to reiterate the council's intention for any action that would impact the downtown area.
"The site should generate downtown activity by incorporating uses that attract residents and visitors to the area," Caudell read, adding her own thoughts afterward.
"The best way for us, the city council, to support the desires of the entire community is to buy this parcel from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and transfer it to the city staff, so they can do what's best for the city of Clearwater," she said. "I am elected by all the people of Clearwater. I represent all of them. I will do the best for them."
Councilmember Hoyt Hamilton said he was once asked how he would vote "regarding the Church of Scientology."
"I answered that question to both members of the church and people who were not members of the church the same way. I will vote on every single item based on what is best for the majority of the people, period," Councilmember Hamilton said.
Mayor Cretekos offered some final thoughts before calling for a vote.
"All of us, whether we are Scientologists, Presbyterian, Jewish, Muslim, or, in my case, Greek Orthodox, we will be able to celebrate a Clearwater that truly is bright and beautiful, from the bay to the beach," the mayor said.
And from there, the vote was unanimous.
The land in question, at 301 Pierce Street, is currently owned by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.The city will to buy the land for about $4.25 million, and then the aquarium will lease it back from the city.
The Church of Scientology made a counter offer to purchase the 1.4 acre lot for $15 million.
Aquarium officials said before the vote they would honor the price negotiated with the city before considering the church's offer.
"It's very simple. We made a commitment to our partner. It's in writing. We gave it to them. If they chose not to buy the property it'd be different but they chose to do that," Clearwater Marine Aquarium representative David Yates told FOX 13 News after the vote.
Back in March, some downtown business owners met with the church's figurehead, David Miscavige to discuss plans for a retail complex in downtown Clearwater. It was unclear whether the property in question at Thursday's city meeting was part of those plans, because those meetings were held in private.