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Clearwater figure to sell downtown land

A spokesman for the Church of Scientology says former Commissioner Fred Thomas offered the property to the church.

By CHRISTINA HEADRICK

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 22, 2000


CLEARWATER -- Former city commissioner Fred Thomas, a longtime critic of the Church of Scientology, has offered to sell some of his downtown land to the church, a Scientology official says.

But church officials won't be buying, said church spokesman Mike Rinder.

Thomas would not confirm that he contacted church representatives. He did say he would consider any interested buyer, including Scientology -- because, he said, "Downtown belongs to the Scientologists."

The land in question includes the Clearwater Train Station fast-food restaurant, a Pinch-a-Penny pool store and Freedom Park.

Thomas, founder of the Pinch-a-Penny pool supply chain, doesn't consider that stance to be inconsistent with his past criticism of the church, which he has described as a business masquerading as a religion with ambitions to take control of the city government. Once, he urged the city to enhance commercial property values to prevent Scientology from acquiring land.

"I'll sell to whoever gives me the money when I sell it," Thomas said. "When it comes to selling property in downtown Clearwater, the church is the downtown player, and 10 years from now that's the only player you'll see."

Rinder said the properties are not "anything that we're interested in." Rinder said Thomas contacted the church around early November to see if there was any interest in a purchase.

Three years ago, Thomas said he took pride in tearing down two dilapidated buildings and creating his pool shop, restaurant and Freedom Park, where monuments portray the Ten Commandments and historic documents like the Declaration of Independence.

"I believe in downtown Clearwater," Thomas told the Times then. "I hope that other people will invest in downtown Clearwater. Quit being afraid of it."

Thomas ultimately invested as much as $1-million in his downtown projects, according to a letter he sent residents this summer.

So what changed? Thomas said it's too difficult to attract shoppers to the city's Scientology-dominated core. He now believes the city should focus on redeveloping other areas like Clearwater Beach.

"Downtown belongs to the Scientologists in my opinion, and it would be a waste of the taxpayers' money to fund any kind of redevelopment," Thomas, 63, said. "We're foolish to spend taxpayers' money so the Scientologists can have a better place to live."

Also of concern, Thomas said, is that his downtown Pinch-a-Penny store hasn't been productive enough.

"Even with an enormous expense, it did not bring enough traffic to make it profitable," he said. "I'm a businessman first, and you only spend so much money to make a business work."

The Train Station does a brisk lunch business, Thomas said, but would have trouble at other hours. As for Freedom Park, Thomas says, it could be moved elsewhere if a buyer wanted its land.

The notion that Thomas may be interested in selling his interests downtown surprised some people in the city's business community.

Ed Armstrong, an attorney who is the former chairman of the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce, finds it ironic that Thomas would even consider doing business with the church after years of criticizng Scientology.

"It's a tremendous irony that after bashing the church, Thomas wants them to bail him out of a bad business decision that he apparently has made," Armstrong said. "I guess that's another example of Mr. Thomas' principle de jour."

Lee Regulski, a former commissioner who is running for a seat on the City Commission again next spring, saw Thomas' actions in another light.

"If (Thomas) said he would not sell to Scientologists, then he could be liable for discrimination," Regulski said.

Lee Arnold, chief executive of the Colliers Arnold commercial real estate company, said it's just common sense to consider all potential buyers, including Scientology, a major landowner downtown.

He noted that Thomas' properties are between Court and Chestnut streets, which are slated to become the primary route through downtown to the beach when the new Clearwater Memorial Causeway bridge opens in several years.

"It's an ideal location, heading to the beach," Arnold said, "He won't have too much trouble selling it, if that's what he decides."

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