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CLEARWATER—Four doctors, a certified public accountant, a lawyer and a businessman have offered the Church of Scientology $3.25-million in cash to buy the former Fort Harrison Hotel and Sandcastle Motel.
The offer was made Tuesday, one day after the Clearwater City Commission ended its public hearings on Scientology. The church has 60 days to respond.
Church spokesman Hugh Wilhere said he does not plan to meet with the group. "We get offers all the time" to buy property, he said, but the church isn't interested in selling: "We're here to stay in Clearwater."
Dr. Gilbert Jannelli, a Clearwater optometrist, downtown property owner and spokesman for the seven-member consortium, said the offer is "purely a business and speculative venture." The partners believe that downtown redevelopment will happen, and both hotels are "key pieces" of real estate in choice locations, he noted.
Jannelli said the group has been trying to buy the two buildings for several years.
IN DECEMBER 1979, Jannelli and several of the partners in this venture offered to buy the Fort Harrison for $1-million. But the church, which bought the 272-room building in 1975 for $2.3-million, spurned the offer.
Another group of Clearwater businessmen tried the next month to buy the church's downtown headquarters. It offered an unspecified but higher price. Its offer also was rejected.
Despite the past failures and Wilhere's comments about wanting to stay in Clearwater, Jannelli said the offer was worth a try. "Any group that comes under fire for any reason — whether they have any plans of leaving or not — we're interested in those pieces of real estate," he said.
Other members of the group are Dr. Jim Nielsen, an ophthalmalogist; Dr. Bill Strupp, a dentist; Dr. Albert Pacifico, a Birmingham, Ala., surgeon; Rex Harper, the certified public accountant, Clearwater lawyer Don Hall and Fred Thomas, head of the Pinch-A-Penny chain.
This last name is sure to fuel speculation that the group is connected with a push to defeat the proposed bayfront hotel below the downtown Maas Brothers department store or with a futuristic plan to redevelop downtown. Thomas was or is behind both projects.
BUT JANNELLI said the offer to purchase the two hotels had nothing to do with either of them.
In an interview earlier this spring, before the City Commission held its hearings on Scientology, John Wyllys, president of the Greater Clearwater Chamber of Commerce, mentioned the possibility that businessmen would try to buy church property to get the Scientologists to leave.
"It's more possible than you know . . ." he said. "I think that could happen if (you put together) the right people and the right amount of money." He could not be reached for comment Tuesday.