tampabay.com

Scientology adds Plant City to roster

Not everyone is rolling out the welcome mat after the church purchases a building and announces plans to set up shop.

By ROBERT FARLEY
Published April 11, 2006



PLANT CITY - In this town of restored brick buildings, behemoth Christian churches and stately homes, people are whispering.

The Church of Scientology is coming to Plant City, of all places.

On Monday, the church paid $620,000 in cash for an 11,000-square-foot portion of Frenchman's Market, a downtown landmark at 102 N Collins St. dating from 1922.

It will be a "Life Improvement Center" like the one in Ybor City. Scientology staffers will offer audio and visual displays, videos and books on Scientology and founder L. Ron Hubbard's seminal text Dianetics. Introductory Scientology courses will be available.

Personality and stress tests will be offered, too, as a way to entice people inside. Church officials say they haven't decided yet whether Scientologists will take to Plant City streets to recruit passers-by, as they do in Ybor.

But the Church of Scientology is not receiving Plant City's warm embrace.

From the pulpit of the massive First Baptist Church, two blocks from the new outreach center, the Rev. Ron Churchill spoke of the new neighbors in his last two Sunday sermons, calling Scientology a cult and warning his parishioners to be strong of faith.

Across the street from Scientology's building, antiques store owners hung "No solicitation" signs - a message to Scientologists who stopped by last week to drop off literature. Keep out.

Many residents and shop owners worry Scientology recruiters will hurt downtown business. They fear Scientology. They are shocked and annoyed the church has come to their town. It just doesn't fit Plant City, they say.

Most of all, many say, they don't want Plant City to become another Clearwater.

Clearwater is Scientology's mecca, its international spiritual headquarters. Scientology's concentration of properties is a defining feature of the city.

Plant City, though, needn't fret, Scientology officials say.

"I think that they will find they come to love the center and the people who will be there," said Clearwater church spokesman Ben Shaw on Tuesday. "We are an asset to every community we are a part of. I think the concerns are merely a matter of not having information. When they learn who we are and what we are, we'll get along great."

Nearly three years ago, Scientology stepped up its profile in Tampa, purchasing two old cigar factories in West Tampa to serve as a headquarters of the Tampa church. And it opened a Life Improvement Center in Ybor City, where 500 people have taken Scientology courses, Shaw said.

Now the Tampa church is branching out.

Over the next year, it plans to open Life Improvement Centers in St. Petersburg, Lakeland, Gainesville, Cocoa Beach, Tallahassee, Jacksonville and Sarasota. The first: Plant City.

It was chosen as the first peg in the expansion plan because, Shaw said, "It's a logical extension from Tampa." Scientology sells a lot of books in the Plant City area, he said. And it gets a lot of visitors for events such as the annual Strawberry Festival.

The Rev. Churchill and others are convinced Scientology has miscalculated. "This is a strongly Christian community," Churchill said.

He told his 3,000-strong flock to take the offensive and try to evangelize the Scientologists.

"Seek to establish a personal, friendly relationship with the Scientologist," reads one of his tips. Another suggests, "Establish the sole authority of the Bible."

Three city commissioners told the St. Petersburg Times they are taking a softer approach. Scientologists have every right to come to Plant City, they said, even if townspeople don't agree with their beliefs. "Hopefully we will express ourselves as a gracious Christian community," said Commissioner Rick Lott.

A half-dozen Scientologists from Tampa and Clearwater met Tuesday with Plant City's mayor, city manager and police chief. They laid out plans to rehab the building, which they hope to open this summer.

"They indicated they wanted to be good neighbors and be respectful of community values," said City Manager David Sollenberger.

Shaw said the outreach center likely will offer English courses. And, "We will be involved in the community, like we are everywhere."

But many are wary.

At the downtown fertilizer store Shelby Bender runs with her husband, deer heads are mounted on the wall and Mudfish, a mixed-breed dog, lies curled up in a basket but keeps one sleepy eye on visitors.

Plant City is an Old South town, said Bender, who heads up the local historical society.

"They think they are going to get people off the sidewalk in Plant City?" she scoffed.

She's proud of the strides the city has made in revitalizing downtown and is leery of the effect Scientologists might have.

"This is not a church," she said. "It's not a religion. It's foo-foo. To me, it's like all the cults. They prey on gullible people.

"Am I interested in hearing their side of the story?" She pauses. "Nah."

Many old-timers also are not happy with Plant City native David Hawthorne, who sold Frenchman's Market to the Scientologists. Once praised for renovating 13 downtown buildings, he now is called a turncoat.

Hawthorne said he had no idea who the buyer was until after the property was under contract. Scientology, as it often does, purchased through an agent to avoid an inflated price.

But Hawthorne is ready to move forward. "People react to change," he said. "Plant City is growing up. Plant City was once a small sleepy farming community. Now there's not much farming left. People may not want to hear this but, unfortunately or fortunately, there is going to be some more change."