Church's Mission To Expand Puts Residents On Edge
JULY 9, 2006
© Tampa Tribune
By BAIRD HELGESON
Scientologists describe their religion as a cathartic journey toward happiness and clarity of mind. Church of Scientology critics call it kooky science fiction disguised as religion. Whatever you believe, the church says it is growing.
Although the church's membership remains a much-debated mystery, its land holdings tell the story of a robust organization in the midst of a new chapter of growth.
Worldwide, Scientologists say they have bought 21 buildings they plan to turn into churches. Still , some former Scientologists and observers insist the church's membership is depleted, down dramatically over the past 20 years. They contend the church is' using its financial muscle to buy buildings and create a false sense that the organization is thriving.
Since the mid-1970s, Scientology has become a real estate behemoth in the Tampa Bay area. The church spent tens of millions of dollars to buy and renovate about 40 properties, mostly for its spiritual headquarters in Clearwater.
But Clearwater was intended to be a Mecca for true believers, not a center for recruiting members.
So Scientology's Tampa church is leading a new expansion in Florida, with plans for about a half-dozen Life Improvement Centers in the next year. The church aims to expand its outreach into smaller towns and among the black and Hispanic communities, which critics say is an effort to make inroads among those with little knowledge of its controversial past.
Scientology's first new center will be in Plant City, a community steeped in Christian faith, where towering Baptist and Methodist churches dominate the downtown landscape.
Already, some residents are wary of their new neighbors, and their past.
above: Hazel Ekhoff, 83, leaves First United Methodist Church, one of dozens of christian churches inn Plant City, Scientologists are setting up shop in the historic downtown area, and a few ministers see their presence as an assault on the faith and values of the community
Scientologists Spreading Into Plant City, Beyond
Scientologists Spreading Into Plant City, Beyond
Church's Mission To Expand Puts Residents On Edge PLANT CITY - in a town built by the railroad and made famous by strawberries, Christianity might be Plant City's most thriving enterprise.
The town has more than three dozen Christian churches; six start with the word "First." There are no synagogues, no mosques.
In the historic Whistle Stop cafe downtown, customers stuffed with deli sandwiches and brownie sundaes pay their bills at a counter that features a bowl seeking donations for a Christian youth camp. A waiter wears a baseball hat that says, "I Love Jesus."
Plant City - renowned for its festival that pays homage to all things strawberry - wouldn't seem fertile ground for an expansion of the Church of Scientology, a religion that traces the genesis of human misery to a vengeful alien ruler named Xenu and a galactic genocide that raged 75 million years ago. Scientology teaches that the evil residue of this battle survives in the souls of mankind and that it has the key to freedom from human suffering - for a price.
Now Scientology is moving to Plant City in a big way, set to become a tiny outpost in what church leaders say is a large push to expand in Florida.
Downtown Plant City will soon be anchored with one of Scientology's Life Improvement Centers, complete with classrooms, stress tests and the works of its science-fiction-writing founder, L. Ron Hubbard.
Someday soon, those walking along the brick streets of downtown could be asked by a Scientologist whether they would like to take a personality test, a gateway into the world of Scientology.
Tampa Church Leads Expansion
Clearwater is Scientology's spiritual headquarters, but the Tampa church will lead its effort to build centers throughout Florida.
The Church of Scientology has spent hundreds of millions of dollars buying and renovating buildings in past years, including tens of millions of dollars in Clearwater since it came to the area in 1975.
Over the next year, the church plans to buy buildings and open similar Life Improvement Centers in Lakeland, Sarasota, St. Petersburg, Gainesville, Cocoa Beach and Jacksonville.
"There's an explosion of interest in Scientology," said Pat Harney, a Scientology spokeswoman. "We are only going where the interest is."
Scientology critics, former members and some Plant City residents aren't so sure. They insist Scientology is nothing more than a money-hungry, mind-controlling cult desperate to find recruits as membership declines. They say the purchase of buildings is a ruse, a publicity stunt designed to convey a sense of vibrancy.
"It's all about perception," said Rick Ross, a cult expert who has researched Scientology for years. "If you can't impress with new members, impress with new buildings."
Scientology leaders disagree with any assertion that they are struggling to find new members.
"There is no disputing that Scientology is growing," Harney said.
For proof, she said the church's new building boom is paid for entirely with member donations, a sign of a thriving membership.
A Scientology fact sheet notes that the Tampa church has 210 staff members, up from 40 in 2003.
For many people, their most memorable brush with Scientology came in June 2005 when "Today" show co-host Matt Lauer had a tense exchange with longtime member Tom Cruise. The actor was defending his earlier criticism of Brooke Shields for taking antidepressants, which Scientology forbids.
For younger people, their only knowledge of Scientology might have come from watching the episode of "South Park" in which one of the foul-mouthed characters was cast as a reincarnated Hubbard, lambasting Cruise and many of the church's most sacred and secret teachings.
But behind the flashes of celebrity intrigue is a highly secretive, cash-rich organization with its financial headquarters in Los Angeles and a retreat for its highest-level members in Clearwater.
The church makes money by charging members for classes, purification sauna therapies and counseling, called auditing. Scientology auditing can create a feeling of euphoria or relief, which can become addictive, said Steven Hassan and other cult experts.
Auditing can become expensive, as well, sometimes costing more than $500 an hour. Former members said it can cost more than $300,000 to achieve the top levels of Scientology.
At the highest levels, Scientologists are guaranteed fantastical powers, such as the ability to fly outside their bodies and move inanimate objects with their minds.
Scientologists dispute that auditing is a form of mind control and resent those who refer to the church as a cult.
"That's been debunked," Harney said. "[url">Scientology wakes you up, and it's insulting when people use a discriminatory tone. Scientologists are some of the brightest, most intelligent people."
The church's wealth has remained a closely held secret since an early 1990s IRS decision declared it a religious organization, no longer required to make annual financial disclosures.
The church disclosed in 1993 - the last year it had to declare income for federal tax purposes - that it had $398 million in assets and took in $300 million a year. Scientology watchers, even the most skeptical, said the organization is thought to have billions of dollars in property and cash.
"From a financial standpoint, Scientology is not floundering or in any way broke," Ross said. "It remains quite solvent, very wealthy."
The church owns 36 properties in Pinellas County, with an assessed value of $63.8 million, and more than half are exempt from property taxes because they are used for religious purposes. The church owns five properties in Hillsborough County, valued at more than $3.3 million. All are tax-free. That doesn't count outreach missions, such as one that recently opened in Seminole Heights, which are often rented and run on donations.
Like many large companies, the Church of Scientology often negotiates secretly, sometimes creating a shell company with an assumed name to prevent the owner from inflating the price or the sale from causing a stir.
For instance, in California it bought the 500-acre Gilman Hot Springs resort in 1978 under the names the Scottish Highland Quietude Society and Western States Scientific Association. It bought its first buildings in Clearwater under an assumed name, which many thought to be an effort to dodge controversy.
The Church of Scientology has a history of buying old, run-down buildings, such as the Frenchman's Market building in Plant City, the old cigar factories it owns in West Tampa and its Life Improvement Center in Ybor City. Older buildings are generally cheaper to renovate than buying land and constructing facilities, said Matthew Pearse, Scientology's design director in Clearwater.
The church always pays cash and sometimes pays much more than the assessed value. Scientologists paid $620,000 to buy the 1910 building in Plant City, which has an assessed value of $362,000. The two-story building had been a bank and a Hooker's department store before becoming a flea market, called Frenchman's Market.
Scientologists generally restore the buildings to give them a feel of their historic glory days, while incorporating some of the area's past. The logo on the Plant City center includes strawberries and railroad tracks, to commemorate the town's long and storied connection to the railroad.
"It makes it their church," Pearse said.
Skeptics such as Arnaldo Lerma, a former member who published secret church texts on the Internet, said Scientology is moving into smaller towns where buildings are cheaper, community leaders are desperate to revitalize and scrutiny is generally mild. He said the church has aggressively recruited the poor, blacks and migrants, some who may not be familiar with the church's past.
"It's all about money," he said. "It's the last great con."
In Plant City, residents have met their new neighbors with a good dose of skepticism - or worse.
A few ministers see the presence of Scientology as no less than an assault on the faith and values of their community. Some church leaders have preached about the potential for spiritual warfare, with 33,000 souls at stake.
The Rev. David L. Martin, associate pastor of Evangelical Presbyterian Church, advised his parishioners to treat the Scientologists with "kindness, dignity and respect." But he warned members to watch out for Scientologists and their efforts to win converts.
Martin and other Plant City residents share a similar sentiment: They don't like that Scientologists are coming to town, but they acknowledge there's little they can do to stop them.
David Simmonds, an antiques shop owner and leader in the Historic Downtown Merchants Association, said there are concerns about Scientologists soliciting on the streets, which could annoy customers.
For now, Simmonds and others are waiting to see how their new neighbors will change life in Plant City. "Obviously, the Scientologists haven't opened yet," Simmonds said.
Harney, the church spokeswoman, said Scientologists have largely received a warm welcome from many in the Plant City area, including some church leaders. She said her organization has offered to join with other churches in charitable work.
Harney also contends that a Scientologist can be a Christian, too. Scientology merely provides the tools to improve spiritual exploration, she said.
"We are not trying to change your faith," she said. "We are trying to improve your spiritual awareness." Membership Numbers
So is Scientology really growing? Church officials say it is.
The Church of Scientology, founded in December 1953, reports to have more than 10 million members worldwide and has claimed for decades to be the fastest-growing religion in the world. At a recent international meeting, the Church of Scientology of Tampa was recognized as its fastest-growing branch in the world.
Church leaders won't reveal specifics about membership in the Plant City area. Harney said community interest was strong at the Scientology booth at Plant City's Strawberry Festival.
Harney noted that about 1 percent of people in the region have bought Hubbard's self-help books, particularly "Dianetics."
Hubbard, who died in 1986, was a science-fiction writer who turned into a philosopher and self-improvement guru. In 1960, he published an instant best seller and what became a founding text in Scientology, a self-help book called "Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health." The book criticized psychiatry while advocating Hubbard's own brand of therapy and treatments.
Skeptics and former members said that by noting book sales and anecdotal examples, church leaders are hiding the real truth about Scientology: Membership has declined sharply from its heyday 20 years ago.
Scientology's own publications - "Celebrity," "Source," "Advance" and others - show that the number of people seeking its services peaked in the mid-1980s and has steeply declined since then, said Kristi Wachter, a former Scientologist who lives in San Francisco and has become a vocal detractor of the church.
Critics and former members say there are fewer than 200,000 Scientologists worldwide. City University of New York's American Religious Identification Survey indicates there are 45,000 to 55,000 Scientologists in the United States.
In Canada, where census surveys ask for religious affiliation, just 1,525 reported being Scientologists. By comparison, about 20,000 people identified themselves as being Jedi, a fictitious mind-control faith that originated in "Star Wars" movies.
Scientologists said staff members from Tampa will operate the Plant City center, at least initially.
Harney said it's common for churches of all faiths to use existing staff to open outreach centers.
Jerry Lofstrom, who owns the Whistle Stop cafe, doubts Scientology will thrive in Plant City.
"They might penetrate the vulnerable," he said. "I don't think they've ever moved into a town like Plant City, steeped in faith and Christian ideals."
Les Scates, a retired U.S. Army helicopter pilot, agrees. "Every person has a built-in desire for spiritual fulfillment," said Scates, 67. "Sometimes they look for it in the right place; sometimes they look for it in the wrong place."
Reporter Dave Nicholson contributed to this report. Reporter Baird Helgeson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 259-7668. Reporter Ray Reyes can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 865-4433.
1975: The Church of Scientology secretly buys the old Fort Harrison Hotel downtown.
1977: Documents seized by the FBI lay out a church plan to take over the city and discredit enemies, including then-Mayor Gabe Cazares.
1979: An estimated 3,000 people descend on city hall to protest the church coming to town.
1982: The city commission holds five days of hearings about Scientology with allegations by former Scientologists and others that the church is a cult. Among the critics testifying is Ron DeWolf, formerly L. Ron Hubbard Jr., the son of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. The church, through its attorney, criticizes the hearings and declines to participate.
1984: Clearwater passes an ordinance that officials say is aimed at reducing fraud by any group claiming to be charitable. The Church of Scientology wages an 11-year legal battle against the ordinance before getting it repealed.
1993: The IRS ends its decades-old battle with Scientology and grants it tax-exempt status on properties used for religious activity.
1996: The Tampa Tribune reports that Clearwater police are investigating the 1995 death of Scientologist Lisa McPherson while under the church's care. Pinellas State Attorney Bernie McCabe later charged the church with two felonies. The charges were dropped after Medical Examiner Joan Wood changed her opinion about the cause of McPherson's death.
2004: The church and McPherson's estate reach a private settlement in a civil case.
2006: The seven-story Flag Building in downtown Clearwater, Scientology's future religious center across from its headquarters at the Fort Harrison Hotel, remains unopened seven years after construction began.
For Better or Worse It Changed Clearwater
Scientology's Presence Is Obvious But MysteriousJuly 9, 2006
© Tampa Tribune
CLEARWATER - To the unfamiliar, downtown Clearwater might be mistaken for a naval port.
Masses of uniformed people walk the streets, wearing belted green, navy or russet pants and crisp white or pale blue shirts. They move in purposeful strides, with the quickened footsteps of people with a mission.
Such has been the predominant scene in this waterfront city since the Church of Scientology secretly bought the old Fort Harrison Hotel in 1975 and later made it the group's worldwide spiritual headquarters, shocking residents.
Today, the church has become an indelible, if still mysterious, part of Clearwater. Yet opinions differ on the extent to which the church's strong presence has changed downtown.
Although some locals credit Scientologists with cleaning up Clearwater's once-decrepit urban core, others say non-Scientologist retailers and passers-by avoid downtown because of the church's dominance.
"Their economic impact has been positive because they've brought financial energy to areas that were blighted," said Lee Arnold, a prominent Clearwater based real estate developer.
Former Mayor Rita Garvey, a longtime Scientology critic, said the militaristic garb of church members discourages non-Scientologists from shopping downtown.
"The majority of people you see downtown are in uniform, and the general public does not necessarily have a reason to go downtown," Garvey said. "Other than the library or the courthouse or the banks, there's no reason for the general public to go downtown."
' At first glance, it appears downtown Clearwater should thrive.
The third-largest city in the Tampa Bay area, it sits on a bluff overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway. It has the most popular beach in the area, drawing visitors from throughout the region and beyond.
Yet many of those people, and even those who live in the city, rarely shop or dine downtown. As with many cities nationwide, the 1970s brought suburban shopping malls. Clearwater Mall opened in 1974 and Countryside Mall a year later, drawing people away from shops and restaurants downtown.
Even before then, though, downtown was ailing after Sunshine Mall opened just a few blocks away in 1968. Several downtown retailers, including JCPenney, moved to the mall.
"Sunshine Mall was built too close to downtown, so down town started to die," said Mike Sanders, Clearwater's leading historian. "Then the Scientologists came in. Into the '80s, you still had national chains downtown, but they began to be replaced by Scientology-related businesses. The whole complexion changed. Now, downtown is kind of in a transition period."
Arnold, however, said much of the changes downtown have had little, if anything, to do with the church.
"It's gone through a series of migrations, of people in and out and businesses in and out, that are not necessarily correlated to the Scientologists," said Arnold, citing as an example last year's relocation of the 82-year-old Calvary Baptist Church from downtown to east Clearwater.
The next few years will determine whether downtown will come back. Arnold and others said.
The city is spending millions on streetscaping and other infrastructure improvements to make the area more pedestrian-friendly and to act as a catalyst for long-awaited downtown redevelopment.
"When some of these condo projects are occupied, we'll start to see the retail come back to support the residential that is going to be built," Arnold said.
At the same time, Sanders said, the city will have to find a way to "contain" the church, the largest property owner downtown.
"The profile of the new resident remains to be seen," Sanders said. "Right now, it's a lot of Scientologists."
Some longtime merchants blame much of downtown's problems on something as basic as a lack of on-street parking.
"If you don't provide for more readily available parking, you will never see anybody come downtown," said George Kelly, owner of the Downtown Newsstand, a fixture on Cleveland Street for nearly two decades. "I don't care if there are Scientologists here or not."
Asked whether some people shun downtown because of the uniformed presence of church members, Kelly, who has been critical of the church in the past, said, "They're not a help."
Nor is the mystery that surrounds an organization that most people know about only because of its affiliation with celebrities such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta. "They've been here for 30 years now," Kelly said. "I defy you or anybody else in this whole community to find a single person who's not a Scientologist who can give you a basic understanding of what the hell they're here for, what the hell they're all about."
Lillian Trickel, who has run Trickels Jewelers since 1945, said the church's presence has had little effect on her Cleveland Street business.
"They just don't buy too much jewelry, you know."
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