Residents strolling the sidewalks of this city of 34,000 have not been accosted by overzealous Scientologists.
Unlike in Pinellas County, there have been no significant anti-Scientology demonstrations.
Nor has Plant City’s Church of Scientology Life Improvement Center been the target of vandalism or threats of violence, as have some of the church’s worldwide facilities.
The church, started in Los Angeles in 1954 by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, has made hardly a ripple in this community – despite residents’ initial concerns.
The Rev. Ron Churchill of First Baptist Church of Plant City, one of the earliest and most vocal critics, said there is little visible evidence Scientologists are in town. He remains puzzled why the church, with its nontraditional beliefs and celebrity membership, targeted Plant City in the first place.
“I was really surprised when they came here,” he said. “This is a pretty strong Christian community.” Scientologists’ local success – or lack of it – is hard to gauge, he said. The center is open seven days a week, and visitors and followers “come throughout the day,” said Yamila Sene, director of public affairs for the Church of Scientology of Tampa. “It’s not like everyone has to be here at 2 o’clock. And you have to understand, this is not a church itself,” she said.
The open, well-lighted center includes two state-of-the-art theaters which can screen any of seven Scientology titles in one of 16 languages. The mezzanine includes classrooms. The top floor of the 15,000-square-foot building is used for storage.
“We didn’t know what it was going to be like,” and there’s still uncertainty, the Rev. Churchill said. “They don’t really say they’re a Christian organization. They talk about nebulous things; it’s not really spelled out. It’s very strange.”
Their goal, Churchill said, seems to be to get everyone tested on the E-meter.
Scientologists say the device measures the stress levels of the user.
“One of things about the stress test: On every E-meter there’s a little plate that says this machine is of no medical consequence,” Churchill said.
– The Anderson Report, Chapter 14 (Australian government Board of Inquiry).
A functioning electropsychometer – or E-meter – is displayed at the Plant City Life Improvement Center, which has 42 informational exhibits and 12 interactive video stations. The meter allows a trained operator to determine an individual’s primary areas of concern, said Peggy Guignon, the center’s director since its March 18, 2007, opening.
Guignon offers some numbers:
In its first year the center sold more than 2,000 books at $15 to $20 each and 225 people took $50 Scientology courses. Free English-language classes aimed at the area’s many Hispanic workers, have drawn 40.
About 30 people regularly visit the center, some to attend bilingual Sunday church services or weekly guest lectures, she said. Some visitors take advantage of the free written test of intelligence, aptitude and personality, Guignon said.
The church has decades of experience opening centers in downtown metropolitan areas, but no one knew what to expect in comparatively rural Plant City. “We didn’t identify specifics; we’re just here to help people,” said Guignon, who believes the Plant City center has “achieved some tremendous successes” in its first year.
“I’m thrilled with what I’ve experienced in integrating into the community and the number of people who’ve come in to look,” Guignon said. The church joined the Greater Plant City Chamber of Commerce and representatives attend chamber events, Guignon added. “We know our neighbors.”
– Justice Anderson, Supreme Court of Victoria, Australia, quoted atWhat judges have to say about Scientology
John Dicks, who was mayor when the city learned the church was coming to town, agrees. “They have been respectful, cordial neighbors. They’ve run their business and been respectful like every other business owner.”
Dicks said he is not surprised Scientologists have been accepted here. “Plant City, of course, has always been a community that has been able to work with all types of different groups and always greets people with a welcoming attitude,” the former mayor said.
Dicks also credits Scientologists with doing “a wonderful job” renovating the century-old building at 102 N. Collins St. in Plant City’s downtown historical district.
Actress Erika Christensen, whose film credits include “Flightplan” and “Traffic,” was guest speaker at the Plant City opening. The next day, actor John Travolta participated in the opening of Scientology’s St. Petersburg Life Improvement Center. The centers are part of a push to expand in Florida, church leaders said.
Church of Scientology of Tampa Inc. paid $620,000 for the three-story brick building in historic downtown Plant City, Hillsborough County property appraiser records show. The former bank and department store was assessed at $362,000 at the time of its 2006 sale. Today the improved property is assessed at $933,000.
The building’s former owner, Plant City real estate agent David Hawthorne, said he “took an enormous amount of heat” over the sale. “To those who would listen, I said I [initially] didn’t know who it was.”
Once Hawthorne learned the identity of the buyer of the property, which was on the market for three months, he met with Scientology representatives. “I found them to be nice people, well spoken, well behaved.”
Hawthorne fielded calls from news reporters as far away as Sacramento, Calif. “I didn’t understand the crazy reaction at the time. I guess it shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did,” he said.
“This is rural Florida; I just didn’t understand how it could be conceived as such a big deal. I understand Scientology is controversial. OK, so what’s wrong with a little diversity and controversy?” he said.
He asked and answered his own question: “In hindsight, would I have done it again? Yes, because it’s the right thing to do.”
Little has changed since the church moved in, said Jerry Lofstrom, owner of the Whistle Stop Cafe’, just across the railroad tracks from the Scientology property.
“I think they came into town and brought with them a reputation – a reputation that was carried from Clearwater to Plant City,” he said “We’ve seen none that sort of activity.”Someone sprayed negative graffiti on a sidewalk in front of the Scientology center shortly after it opened. Since then there have been no incidents, Plant City police say.
Last Saturday, as 150 protestors with the Internet-based group Anonymous demonstrated outside the Clearwater Church of Scientology, two young men distributed anti-Scientology fliers in front of the Plant City center.
Lofstrom, the Whistle Stop Cafe’ owner, wrote an April 2006 commentary predicting Plant City could co-exist with the Church of Scientology “without the struggles and strife found in other cities.”
Today, he said, Scientologists are among his customers. “You cannot tell them apart;” he said. “They’re not aliens, I don’t think.”
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