CLEARWATER, Fla. (WFLA) — The Church of Scientology has for the moment at least lost a bid to kill $26 million in public funding for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. The church made a last minute bid to block tourism tax funding for the aquarium’s expansion one day before Tuesday’s Pinellas County Commission meeting. The church argued that the aquarium is not deserving of public support for a myriad of reasons.
Commissioners essentially ignored the church’s objections at their meeting Tuesday and forwarded the proposal along with other recommended projects to a special committee that will negotiate the details of how that bed tax money is spent The plan will return to the commission for final approval.
The church’s dispute with the aquarium stems from a land purchase dispute involving a dirt parking lot next to Clearwater City Hall. The aquarium recently defied the church by selling that land to the City of Clearwater on April 20 for $4.25 million and rejecting Scientology’s $15 million offer.READ: Pinellas TDC funding requestRead: Church of Scientology’s letter objecting CMA receipt of TDC fundsCity of Clearwater leaders want to develop the 1.4 acre parcel as part of its $50 million Imagine Clearwater plan to pump new life and commerce into the city’s downtown waterfront. The church wanted to buy the empty lot on the southwest corner of Pierce St. and Osceola Ave. in order to build a pool and playground area for its adjacent Oak Cove religious retreat. The church insists that project is a critical element to its own self-funded downtown revitalization plan.
A scathing letter and box full of supporting documents sent to the Pinellas Commission Monday by Scientology Attorney Monique Yingling accuses Clearwater Marine Aquarium of fiscal foolhardiness, fictional economic impact claims and gouging taxpayers after turning down the church’s money. “Astoundingly, CMA rejected $15 million in private funding, and is now essentially asking to recoup that amount from taxpayer funds,” Yingling wrote.RELATED: Clearwater votes to buy lot coveted by Church of Scientology
The 7-page letter goes on to allege the aquarium is swimming in money due to the popularity of Winter the Dolphin movies and entertainment tourism and pays its CEO David Yates an exorbitant salary compared to other aquarium managers across the nation.
Yingling’s letter also includes a report by USF Economics Professor Philip Porter that concludes the aquarium’s claims of economic impact, which form the basis of its $26 million tourist tax funding request, are grossly exaggerated and based on a study that includes a “massive and false claim.”
“Because the study is biased and self-serving, its claims offer no good basis for decision-making and should be ignored,” Porter writes in an executive summary of his report..
At Tuesday afternoon’s Pinellas County Commission meeting, commissioners unaninously voiced approval of the aquarium plans without actually taking a formal vote sent it to a committee to work out the details. Aquarium CEO said the aquarium is “moving forward” with its expansion plans and dismissed the church’s criticisms as “inflammatory and inappropriate.”
Church spokesman Ben Shaw later told Eight on Your Side “Its not over yet,” and vowed to continue opposing public financial support of the aquarium as a bad deal for taxpayers. Clearwater City Council Member Hoyt Hamilton called the church’s opposition to aquarium funding a “bully tactic” after losing a bidding war last week with the city over the vacant lot and faulted the church for fostering a bad image of itself in the community.RELATED: Clearwater City officials meet with Scientology leader to discuss downtown revitalization
According to TDC records, the $26 million bed tax funding will be used for the Clearwater aquarium’s planned expansion estimated to cost $53 million. The TDC study claims the Clearwater aquarium has a total annual economic impact of $674.7 million, a figure that the Church of Scientology and its experts vigorously dispute.
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