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Ybor adds Scientolgy to the mix on Saturday

The church will use the renovated building to sell books, administer IQ tests and offer courses. But some merchants are grumbling about canvassing tactics.

Published June 6, 2003

The Church of Scientology will raise its Ybor City profile with the grand opening Saturday of a building it renovated next to Centro Ybor.

Scientology of Tampa spokeswoman Ana Tirabassi said the church wants to be a good neighbor. But some merchants and community leaders have raised concerns about canvassing tactics.

The church spent $200,000 renovating the leased building at 1619 E Eighth Ave. and expects 500 people for the grand opening, Tirabassi said.

"We like Ybor City because it has lots of people, lots of life, lots of activities, and it's a vibrant community," she said.

This week, workers were putting the finishing touches on the Scientology Life Improvement Center, which will sell Scientology books, administer personality, IQ and aptitude tests and offer self-improvement courses.

But to get people through the doors, the church stops them on sidewalks.

Vince Pardo, executive director of the Ybor City Development Corporation, said he's pleased to see the church fix up a local building but he's also heard complaints about the intensity of church members' pitches.

In teams of two, members have been standing along Seventh Avenue, talking to passers-by and offering free personality tests. Some of them have apparently followed customers onto private Centro Ybor property, where solicitation is off limits.

"We're all for free speech," said Lisa Brock, a spokeswoman for Centro Ybor. "We just have to draw the line at following people (onto) any of our property, which might cross into the area of harassment."

The concerns of Ybor merchants made their way to the city's legal department last week. City attorneys will be looking at whether church canvassing violates any ordinances or if new ordinances are needed.

Tirabassi said canvassing is used worldwide by the church to introduce potential new members to Scientology.

The church has had a presence in Ybor City since 1997, Tirabassi said, and it has and will continue to listen to neighbors' concerns.

"If someone has a truly legitimate complaint, we will ensure that is dealt with so it never happens again," Tirabassi said. "We strive to be good neighbors."

Dan Hoeh, an assistant manager at Centro Ybor's Sunglass Hut/Watch Station, said a representative of the church visited his store last week after hearing about merchants' concerns. Hoeh said church members have "set customers off track" as they approach local shops.

Since the church learned of the complaints, however, they haven't been a nuisance to his store or his customers, Hoeh said.

The Church of Scientology, a worldwide organization with headquarters in Clearwater, was founded in the early 1950s by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard.

In 2001, the church moved its Tampa headquarters to 3102 N Habana Ave. Tirabassi said there are no immediate plans for buying more property in the Tampa area.

- The church's grand opening is 2 p.m. Saturday. For information, call 872-0722.

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