tampabay.com

Scientologists branching out

The church is purchasing a building in St. Petersburg, where it plans to start a new recruiting effort.

By ROBERT FARLEY
Published May 19, 2006


ST. PETERSBURG - After more than 30 years in Clearwater, the Church of Scientology is making its first significant step toward recruiting members in the heart of downtown St. Petersburg.

The church has a contract to purchase a historic 7,000-square-foot building at 336 1st Ave. N, near Williams Park. The sale is not final, but church officials hope it will be by June.

By the end of the summer, the church plans to open a life improvement center, offering introductory Scientology courses, books by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard and audio visual displays on Scientology.

Clearwater is home to the church's worldwide spiritual headquarters, where people come for the highest levels of Scientology training. But Scientologists generally don't recruit members there. That is one of the aims of the Church of Scientology in Tampa, where members throughout the Tampa Bay area perform church services. The St. Petersburg life improvement center will be an outreach of the Tampa church.

The building will operate similarly to the life improvement center in Ybor City, where church recruiters stand on the street and try to lure passers-by with personality or stress tests.

Lynn Irons, executive director of the Tampa church, said church leaders have not decided the extent of recruiters' presence on downtown St. Petersburg streets, or whether that may extend to nearby BayWalk.

"Whatever is permissible, we'll probably do that," Irons said.

The move into St. Petersburg is part of a major expansion plan by the Church of Scientology of Tampa, which two months ago was recognized at an international church event as the fastest-growing Scientology church in the world. After purchasing a property in downtown Plant City last month, the church announced plans to open life improvement centers in St. Petersburg, Lakeland, Gainesville, Cocoa Beach, Tallahassee, Jacksonville and Sarasota this year.

St. Petersburg, one of the largest cities in Florida with an active urban core, was a natural next step, said Ben Shaw, a spokesman for the Church of Scientology in Clearwater.

"St. Petersburg is one of the most vibrant and growing cities in Florida, and we enjoy contributing to that," Shaw said.

According to Irons, Tampa Bay residents have bought more copies of Hubbard's seminal text, Dianetics, per capita than any other place in the world. Thirty-thousand to 40,000 copies of Dianetics sold in the Tampa Bay area in the last several years, he said.

That has created a demand for services in St. Petersburg, Irons said.

The church has announced its presence in recent months, setting up Dianetics booths at a recent blues festival, the St. Anthony's triathlon and the Black Heritage Festival.

Don Shea, president of the Downtown Partnership, said church officials met with him several weeks ago at Starbucks.

"They said they wanted to become a part of the fabric of the downtown," Shea said. "I'm absolutely neutral about it. Occupancy is better than vacancy. I'm going to assume the church is going to be a good corporate citizen downtown."

St. Petersburg City Council members Bill Foster and Leslie Curran, whose district includes Williams Park, said Thursday they had not heard about the church's plans.

"I look at it no differently than any other group or company moving into the city," Curran said.

Said Foster: "We have thousands of churches of all faiths here. If the federal government recognizes them as (a church), then they can move wherever they want."

The church approached the owners of the nearly 7,000-square-foot building by Williams Park anonymously, through a real estate agent, and only divulged its identity after the building was under contract.

The building is owned by architect Tim Clemmons and his friend Bob Jeffries, who oversees the historical preservation program for St. Petersburg. They paid $225,000 for it in 1998. Neither Clemmons nor church officials would divulge the church's offer.

The building was built in 1913 as the headquarters for the Women's Town Improvement Association, a classic Victorian era women's organization involved in city beautification projects.

Formed in 1888, the Women's Town Improvement Association was the first civic association in St. Petersburg, Clemmons said, and the group ultimately became active in education, temperance and women's right to vote.

In 1930, the organization disbanded and the building was donated to the YWCA, which operated there until 1950. It was then purchased by the Dennis Hotel next door. The owners built a bridge to the second floor of the building, and made it an adjunct to the hotel.

In 1998, City Council members voted to designate the Women's Town Improvement Association building a historic landmark.

Clemmons uses the second floor of the building for his architectural business. The first floor is rented to Gold Coffee Shop.

The church plans to use the second floor for introductory Scientology courses. The first floor will include a bookstore, space for personality and stress tests and state-of-the-art audio visual displays on Scientology.

"This is something for the person who is wondering, 'What is Scientology?' and they want to find out for themselves," Irons said.

Times Staff Writer Shadi Rahimi contributed to this report.