Clearwater could benefit from Scientology’s energy and investment, but residents should not let the controversial organization take over downtown.
Church of Scientology documents twice have revealed to outsiders a plan to make Clearwater, Pinellas’ county seat, a Scientology stronghold. Documents seized by the FBI in 1977 laid out a church plan to take over the city and discredit enemies. And a church pamphlet stated a goal to make Clearwater the world’s first “Scientology city” by 2000.
A recent two-part series by Times staff writer Robert Farley revealed that Scientology is well on its way to achieving domination in Clearwater’s core, where there has been little investment by others. The story also detailed how a city government that once branded Scientology as a cult and a hostile interloper now finds it needs to partner with the only real player downtown.
The Church of Scientology and individual Scientologists have stepped into the vacuum downtown with enthusiasm, purpose and millions of dollars, and the impact has been stunning. The church now owns 21 buildings and a dozen empty lots downtown and is in the process of spending $160-million on projects ranging from a block-sized headquarters building to a planned 3,600-seat auditorium bigger than Ruth Eckerd Hall. That is just the church-owned properties. Many individual Scientologists own small businesses or other properties downtown, and now emerging are Scientologists who claim the financial wherewithal to develop condominium towers, townhouses, retail shops and restaurants.
The number of church members living in Clearwater is growing by about a thousand a year. Members are stitching themselves into the city’s civic and cultural fabric with volunteer work and memberships in non-Scientology organizations.
Any community could benefit from a growing population of energetic and productive people. The question that must be asked in Clearwater’s case is, to what end are the church and its members here? Are they working toward a better city for everyone, or is domination of the community their goal? Are they merely filling a vacuum downtown, or are they building church founder L. Ron Hubbard’s dream of a Scientology city by the sea? And if their answer is that there is nothing nefarious going on, can their word be trusted?
Clearwater residents have had many reasons to distrust the church during the almost 30 years since the church established its international spiritual headquarters in Clearwater under an assumed name. Granted, the church now has occasional open houses to show off portions of its buildings, and its public relations techniques have improved. However, it remains a mysterious and controversial organization that attempts to silence its critics, not just locally but in countries around the globe. If Scientology wants more acceptance, it must bring more transparency to its internal operations and act more like a church than a secret society.
Clearwater residents’ skepticism about the organization apparently has not translated into an understanding of the damage that could result from having Scientology, or any single entity for that matter, take over their downtown. Twice since 2000, voters have turned down redevelopment plans by non-Scientology developers and the city government. Anecdotal evidence indicates that many voters opposed those projects because they didn’t want anything built downtown that Scientologists might like.
That view is shortsighted. The absence of development competition downtown allows Scientology to build a stronger base in the city’s historic core. And where will the wealthy, expansion-minded church go from there? Perhaps east, to the city’s wide swath of neighborhoods. Or perhaps west, to Clearwater Beach, the city’s economic engine. The likely result: a city in pieces, divided economically and socially.
There is still time to prevent that. Clearwater officials understand what they are up against, but the city lacks the money to take on large-scale redevelopment of downtown on its own, and the voters have tied the city’s hands on smaller projects. Residents need to equip their government with the tools to lead the revitalization of downtown, rather than conceding that job to Scientologists.
And if the Church of Scientology sincerely wants what is best for Clearwater, it will recognize the harm in converting the center of the city into a Scientology preserve. It will not forge ahead for its own benefit, but will stand beside the city government and other stakeholders in the effort to create a diverse downtown with appeal for everyone.