Scientology Crime Syndicate

Fear, mistrust kill plan to rebuild downtown
St. Petersburg Times
July 16, 2000

The polling places are darkened. The signs that said "Vote Yes" or "Save the Bayfront" are slowly disappearing from Clearwater streets.

And the two master developers who were chosen by the Clearwater City Commission to design and build a new downtown have gone home, to watch over their existing projects and perhaps dream up new ones for some other city.

But the dust is far from settled in Clearwater, where last Tuesday's failed referendum on a massive downtown redevelopment plan left more questions than answers.

Voters rejected the plan, 58 percent to 42 percent. There is no misunderstanding that message.

But the whys still have people scratching their heads.

This was a $300-million plan to redevelop Cleveland Street, the downtown's struggling retail strip, as well as a waterfront now mostly covered with old buildings and parking lots. It was a plan under which private enterprise would have borne virtually all of the risks.

Ask people (I have) why they voted no, and many say they feared that the downtown improvements would be too good for the Church of Scientology, perhaps encouraging more Scientologists to come to Clearwater and providing more places downtown for them to live, work and play.

But ask other people why they voted yes, and some say: the Church of Scientology. Unless something new and different happens downtown to draw a better mix of people there, they say, Scientologists will continue to dominate the area and buy up property at bargain prices.

Clearly, whether people voted yes or no, fear of the spread of Scientology was a factor.

Some people say they voted no because they didn't like the idea of leasing publicly owned land to the developers for 99 years.

Good people can disagree on whether long-term leases of public land are wise. But some of those "no" voters didn't understand that the public leased land was a small component of the overall redevelopment project or that the developers had negotiated options (contingent on the outcome of the referendum) to buy or control private property throughout downtown.

Some said they voted no because "those developers were going to make a fortune." Gee, I would hope so. What good are developers who fail?

A surprising number said they voted no because of the fender-bender-plagued roundabout the city built on Clearwater Beach. How in the world did a traffic device, no matter how poorly constructed, become the watershed issue for people voting on downtown redevelopment?

No matter what other reasons they gave for voting no, most mentioned distrust of city officials as a contributing factor.

They scoffed at the idea that city officials were capable of negotiating a good contract with the developers. They feared that city officials had secret deals with the developers. They suspected the city of holding back information. City officials they regarded as inept and big spenders would make a mess of the downtown plan, they said, and Clearwater taxpayers would wind up paying for it somehow.

Some 15 years ago when I moved to Clearwater and began covering it as a reporter, several things about this city's government struck me as rather special.

Clearwater had a reputation in local government circles as professionally managed, fiscally sound and politically smart. It often was mentioned as a model city government. Its ordinances were copied by other cities, and its city managers stayed awhile. The city maintained an admirable openness with the local media and the public.

But the decade of the '90s saw much of that reputation destroyed, and elected and appointed city officials past and present are to blame.

Today's city officials are depicted as buffoons in cartoons and letters. The city is working on some good projects but keeps shooting itself in the foot. Public discourse is decidedly uncivil. And public confidence in local government is so low that even many of those who voted "yes" in Tuesday's referendum did so hoping that City Hall would be able to do that one thing right.

Unless current city commissioners accept their obligation to act decisively to regain public trust and repair the community's divisions, the downward slide may continue and residents' impatience will grow.

Meanwhile, the March city election looms like a dark storm cloud on the horizon. In such a divided, cynical community, angry one-issue candidates can gain a foothold and the city's best potential candidates for public office duck and decline.

Who can blame them for that?



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