Scientologists plan $7M makeover for new center

Former Science Museum building to open next year as one of church’s biggest

The former home of the Science Museum of Minnesota in downtown St. Paul will undergo a $7 million makeover and be unveiled next year as among the largest Church of Scientology centers in the world.

Only the spiritual headquarters in Clearwater, Fla., and Los Angeles are bigger than the 80,000-square-foot building at Seventh and Exchange streets, said the Rev. Brian Fesler, the church’s director of special affairs in the Twin Cities.

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“We didn’t plan it that way, but I’m happy about it,” Fesler said.

Around the world, the Church of Scientology has been purchasing and remodeling buildings into church centers. These branches are considered “ideal organizations,” part of the Scientology doctrine of visible, easily accessible churches, Fesler said.

The St. Paul location will become one of five Church of Scientology centers in the Midwest. Others are in Chicago, Denver, Kansas City, Mo., and St. Louis. Both the St. Louis and Kansas City congregations have purchased larger sites this year.

The church’s design crew in Los Angeles draws up renovation plans based on the local community’s styles and trends, Fesler said.

Designs for the St. Paul building’s interior still are being completed. The church hopes to begin construction as soon as possible. The first floor of the building is to offer informational space about Scientology as well as a chapel with seating for 24. The second and third floors will include classrooms and a purification center.

“We don’t plan any radical changes on the outside,” Fesler said.

Inside, the once-popular Omnitheater space from the Science Museum days is to be maintained, possibly for use by arts and community organizations.

The church also has a 17,000-square-foot branch on Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis. It will remain.

Fesler estimates there are 8,000 followers of Scientology in the Twin Cities area.

For four years, the church searched for a second Twin Cities location and raised funds to make a purchase. The sale closed June 8, though the price wasn’t disclosed and has yet to be filed with Ramsey County. A number of financial institutions had come to own the building, which had been for sale since May 2006.

American science-fiction author L. Ron Hubbard created the body of knowledge that is the foundation of Scientology. “Scientology is the study and handling of the spirit in relationship to itself, others and all of life,” according to the Church of Scientology’s Web site. Scientology also is known for movie star adherents such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta. It has sometimes sparked curiosity and criticism.

In 1999, the Science Museum moved to a new riverfront building on Kellogg Boulevard. The Minnesota Business Academy occupied the building until closing last year after defaulting on $6.6 million in tax-exempt bonds it sold to refinance loans for the building.

Next door, the Gallery medical office building under new ownership is slated for a $1.4 million renovation, said Pete Dufour, vice president at the Colliers Turley Martin Tucker commercial real estate firm in Minneapolis.

Sirak Abebe, who owns the Gallery Gift and Snack Shop in the medical office building, lost half of his sales when the Minnesota Business Academy closed, but he’s gotten a break on rent. He’s hoping the church will turn things around. “You got to be optimistic,” he said.

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