CLEARWATER — The evening began with appetizers and drinks on the rooftop patio of the Fort Harrison Hotel overlooking downtown.
Before the big reveal, guests mingled with Scientology celebrities John Travolta, Kelly Preston, Kirstie Alley and pianist Chick Corea.
The roughly 70 attendees were a mix of parishioners, business and property owners and downtown players — all hand-selected and there by invitation only.
Once they were seated in the adjoining ballroom in assigned chairs, Scientology leader David Miscavige stood before them pitching his vision for downtown with graphic renderings, a video and a nearly two-hour speech. He described the Church of Scientology's plan to revitalize downtown by paying for a total renovation of Cleveland Street's facade and using heavy-hitting consultants to recruit high-end retailers and businesses to fill vacant storefronts.
Miscavige didn't come out and say it, but according to guests, he made it clear there was a catch: The fate of this proposal hinges on the church's ability to buy a 1.4-acre vacant property the city is poised to purchase next week.
Clearwater Marine Aquarium, which owns the lot, rejected the church's $15 million offer earlier this month in favor of giving the City Council a chance to vote on a $4.25 million contract April 20.
"(Miscavige) made that very clear," said Tony's Pizza owner Tony Starova. Otherwise, "they'll keep the proposal in the drawer."
Miscavige said the redevelopment could cost about $8 million and the church has already invested about $30 million in the plan, which has included hiring the consultants and purchasing key downtown properties in recent months, said former Mayor Frank Hibbard, who said he accepted the day-of invitation "so I could formulate an informed opinion."
Because much of the facade redesign would require planning and zoning code compliance, Hibbard said none of the proposal would be possible without city cooperation.
"It comes down to execution and commitment and the way the city and the church are right now, I think some things have to change," Hibbard said. "There's trust issues with all parties involved. And I think to make something like that work, I don't know if you can overcome them. I think the church needs to show the public the plan and let the court of public opinion really drive whether this is viable or not."
Miscavige has not committed to a presentation for the public, but he showed the proposal to four of the five City Council members in private meetings March 14. Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw denied a Tampa Bay Times reporter's request to attend Tuesday's meeting.
Signworx owner Leif Oskarsson said the renderings for the facade redesign had an Old Florida style with a modern and sophisticated edge. He said Miscavige did not give specific names of businesses the church is recruiting but described a mix of boutique retail, a steakhouse, a bakery and restaurants.
"Sitting there and watching this just stunned everybody," Oskarsson said. "It was so gorgeous. . . . How can you not welcome the help financially to help the city of Clearwater come alive again?"
Hibbard said the consultants — Retail Strategies executive vice president Wade Robinett, Gensler Architects principal Irwin Miller and Hybridge Solutions founder Scott Dobbins — attended and spoke briefly. All three announced they were not Scientologists, and Dobbins said he was working pro bono.
Marlene Rose, who owns an art gallery on Cleveland Street and is a member of the church, said Miscavige's proposal is comparable to the upscale level of International Mall and Hyde Park Village in Tampa. Although her gallery thrives as a destination for art buyers, rather than depending on foot traffic, Rose said, the city needs help in developing attractions downtown.
She said the church is offering the financial backing needed and wondered why the city wouldn't step aside to allow the church to buy the aquarium property.
The church wants the property, adjacent to its 13-story Oak Cove religious retreat, to build a swimming pool, playground and other accommodations for parishioners. The city has included the lot, across the street from City Hall, in its 10-year, $55 million downtown waterfront revitalization plan unveiled in February.
The city will likely solicit bids from developers for what to build on the combined aquarium lot and City Hall properties, like a hotel or a condo, to complement the city's redevelopment efforts around the waterfront and Coachman Park, said City Manager Bill Horne.
Scott Szalay, general manager of Clear Sky Cafe slated to open on Cleveland Street May 15, said Miscavige did not give an indication of what the next step will be. Szalay said it appeared "they could start tomorrow if they could" and that the plan could bring more life to downtown.
Socrates Charos, who owns a dance studio on Cleveland Street, said the presentation and vision were impressive but he has questions about whether it could be realistically achieved. Charos, a Greek Orthodox minister, said he told Miscavige he was praying for him "and I asked the Lord we find peace and work together."
"To the eye it looks good,'' Charos said, "but I don't know if it is good."
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.