Scientology expands Tampa presence

Saturday will mark the grand opening of the church’s new home in an old West Tampa cigar factory
St. Petersburg Times, Mar. 28, 2003
By ROBERT FARLEY, Times Staff Writer

TAMPA — Cary Furlow didn’t know what to make of the well-dressed people who walked over to introduce themselves as her new neighbors.

When the sign “Church of Scientology Tampa” went up outside the stylishly renovated cigar factory next to her home, several other neighbors warned her it was “more like a cult than a church.”

But after several weeks, all she notices now is the busy parking lot. “I can’t complain,” said Furlow, 28. “They seem like nice people.”

Saturday will mark the grand opening of the Church of Scientology’s new Tampa home. The four-story, 18,000-square-foot facility at 3102 Habana Ave., purchased last year for $1.1-million, demonstrates the church’s burgeoning growth on the other side of Tampa Bay from Clearwater.

For years, Scientology maintained a nominal presence in Tampa, operating out of a small leased building on Henderson Boulevard in South Tampa. Now, church officials say, the church’s Tampa membership has ballooned to 5,000. About 12,000 Scientologists are said to live in the bay area.

The new base for the Tampa church, just east of Raymond James Stadium, will provide many of the same religious services available to Scientologists in Clearwater, the church’s worldwide spiritual headquarters.

The Tampa facility will offer courses, lectures and counseling geared to longtime Scientologists. It also will welcome newcomers. Services will be provided in Spanish and English.

Some offerings will be free — personality, IQ and aptitude testing.

Scientology’s “purification rundown” will be offered. It aims to remove harmful toxins through vigorous exercise followed by several hours in a sauna in conjunction with a regimen of vitamins, minerals and oils. The facility has several treadmills and a sauna large enough for 20 people.

On the top floor is the Hubbard Guidance Center, where 14 rooms have been readied for Scientology counseling, called auditing.

With religious services offered throughout the building, the church has applied for complete tax-exempt status.

“Our expansion marks a new era in the history of Scientology in Tampa,” the branch’s executive director, Sheri Payson, proclaimed in Scientology’s Living magazine. Church officials declined to speak to the St. Petersburg Times for this article.

Scientologists have made substantial efforts recently to establish the church as members of the Tampa community. The church was one of 30 “gold level” contributors pledging at least $200,000 to Tampa’s failed bid to land the 2012 Olympics.

Church members also got involved in the Tampa mayoral race, hosting a fundraiser for Pam Iorio. Political consultant Mary Repper, who arranged the Iorio fundraiser, said she suggested it to some friends who are Scientologists as a way to avoid in Tampa some of the controversy the church generated when it quietly moved into Clearwater in the 1970s.

“One of the things the church has problems with in Clearwater, they didn’t make these kinds of introductions, so there was this cloud of suspicion,” Repper said.

Repper said West Tampa will come to appreciate the church’s presence.

“If the neighborhood needs help with something,” she said, “I think they’ll find they can turn to the church and the church will be active participants.”

Already, the church appears to have won over some residents in the neighborhood, which is predominantly Hispanic and Catholic.

“They’ve done a beautiful job with the building,” said Javier Plasencia, who runs a cigar shop next door. “They came in and introduced themselves and told us a little bit about their organization. They seem okay. They seem very friendly.

“The courses they offer are life improvement things,” he said. “Heck, who can knock bettering people’s lives, if that’s their agenda.”

But Earl Haugabook, president of the West Tampa Chamber of Commerce, is wary of the church, given its controversial history in Clearwater. “An organization like Scientology, which has basically taken over downtown Clearwater, is not the type of organization we want in the West Tampa area,” Haugabook said. “But they purchased it, and it’s their property. We’re going to have to live with it.”

City Council member Mary Alvarez, whose district is in West Tampa, said she, too, had reservations when she learned last year the church had purchased the building.

But a few weeks ago, she met several Scientologists at a party and came away comforted the church’s Tampa expansion would not result in Scientologists trying to thrust their beliefs on the mostly Catholic neighborhood.

Also, she said, “They really have done a whale of a job remodeling and rehabbing.”

Scientology’s new home

The cigar factory was built in 1908 for the Andres Diaz company of New York. It was one of 178 cigar factories in West Tampa. Andres Diaz closed in 1925, and the building later housed other cigarmakers and a rubber ball manufacturer. In 1980, it was renovated and turned into an office building. Today it is one of 10 well-preserved cigar factories in West Tampa. In 1998, the Tampa Historical Society and West Tampa Centennial Society named it an architectural landmark.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Friday March 28, 2003.
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