DETROIT — The Church of Scientology will establish a new Michigan headquarters in a prominent spot downtown later this year as part of a worldwide expansion.
The church paid $3.5 million for a vacant eight-story building at Griswold and West Jefferson facing Hart Plaza, and plans for the site include a chapel, lecture rooms and meeting space for the church’s community service programs.
“I think it’s going to mean new hope for a lot of people and new answers for people who want to lead better lives, respect others and themselves,” said the Rev. John Carmichael, president of the New York Church of Scientology and spokesman for the project.
The Los Angeles-based church, which counts actors Tom Cruise and John Travolta as members, will relocate most of its operations from Farmington Hills. The church will have a staff of 125 and about 300 members initially, Carmichael said.
The development comes as other projects within the central business district have fallen through, such as condominiums at 1001 Woodward and The Griswold next door to the Westin Book-Cadillac. Because the church will own the building, however, the city won’t reap property taxes from it. The site was previously owned by the financial services firm Raymond James & Associates. The firm paid $9,773 in taxes in 2006. .
The expansion is a response to increased demand and to help meet the needs of area church members. Carmichael could not say how many church members there are in Michigan, but he said there are about 3 million members worldwide.
There are more than 6,000 Scientology churches, missions and groups in 159 countries.
The church has been on a buying spree recently, purchasing property in Harlem and Buffalo, N.Y.; San Francisco; and Tampa, Fla., as it tries to meet demand for more space and interest.
Religion is controversial
The church has drawn controversy around the world for its stance on psychiatry and drug treatment. A German politician recently labeled the religion a “cult” and accused it of restricting human rights, an accusation a church official called “absurd.”
It is premature to say whether officials would face obstacles opening at a location surrounded by the former Pontchartrain Hotel, the Detroit Regional Chamber and seats of county and city government.
Carmichael does not expect any opposition.
“On the contrary, people are looking for answers, real answers, answers that work,” he said.
Economic development officials said the church could enrich downtown by wooing people who have stayed away in recent years, much the same way Ford Field and the three casinos have lured visitors.
“To make a city vibrant, you need many kinds of business and organizations, and diversity is very important,” said John Carroll, executive director of the Detroit Regional Economic Partnership, which is across Griswold from the future church site. “This certainly brings an element of diversity.”
The church, which bought the 50,000-square-foot building in October, will need the City Council’s approval for its plans. Carmichael said zoning allows for a church in that location.
“It’s going to be an occupied building with people working downtown. That is a net gain for the city,” Councilwoman Sheila Cockrel said. “I don’t think they should be held to any different standard than anyone else in the downtown area.”
Carmichael said renovations to the building would take about a year and would include adding a “large” sign on the outside.
Church ‘easy to work with’
Farmington Hills City Manager Steve Brock said he drives by that city’s Scientology church twice a day on his way to and from work.
He said city officials have worked with the church on sign, banner and parking lot issues.
“They have been very easy to work with,” Brock said. “I always see activity there frequently so people are checking them out. But they have been fairly quiet neighbors.”
Farmington Hills Mayor Jerry Ellis said: “We haven’t had any complaints about the church from the community, so it would seem they are being good neighbors.”
The church’s opening in Detroit will bring the property back to its roots: St. Anne’s Catholic Church was built on the site in 1701.
– Justice Anderson, Supreme Court of Victoria, Australia, quoted atWhat judges have to say about Scientology
Raymond James occupied the site for six years before leaving a year ago, taking 100 employees to a Southfield location. On Friday, the building appeared empty, its doors padlocked.
Room for outreach
The church will include a chapel for Sunday services, space for weddings and funerals, seminar and lecture rooms, and space for life improvement, anti-drug and human rights courses that can accommodate hundreds of people, Carmichael said.
The church’s message will be broadcast within the building on 15 plasma screens.
Scientology churches are generally open from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week, he said.
The church will maintain some presence at its $1.27 million Farmington Hills location, but will centralize its operations in Detroit. The church also owns property in Battle Creek.
Staff members will be visible on Detroit’s streets handing out leaflets and inviting people to learn more about the church and its programs, Carmichael said.
“Every leaflet, every invitation will say that people should check it out for themselves,” Carmichael said. “That will be the message.”
He was coy when asked whether Cruise, Travolta or any other celebrity member would visit the new church or attend the grand opening, expected later this year.
“I make no promises either way,” he said.
Staff Writer Delores Flynn contributed to this report.