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Many call on city, church to move on

Some residents hope the focus will shift toward redevelopment now that a case against the Church of Scientology has been dropped.

By CHRISTINA HEADRICK

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 14, 2000


CLEARWATER -- With a high-profile criminal case against the Church of Scientology dropped, city officials, downtown merchants and residents are divided on what impact the turn of events will have on the church's image in Clearwater.

Most city officials are optimistic that the controversy fueled by Lisa McPherson's death -- which happened while she was in the care of church members -- will now fade away. And the Church of Scientology should continue to gain greater acceptance, they predict.

"I think it's time to move on in the community," City Manager Mike Roberto said. "I've always contended that the church was a positive aspect of the city. They're a major property owner downtown and a contributor to the community."

There couldn't be better timing for moving on, since the city is courting public support for a sweeping plan to redevelop downtown, which will be put to a July 11th referendum. The plan would add more apartments, a movie theater, shops and restaurants downtown -- all near Scientology's spiritual headquarters.

Downtown merchants, eager to see the redevelopment occur, also made a call for the city to "move on."

"I'm not in any way defending what the church . . . may have done way into the past," said Les Spits, owner of the Mooko International fine furniture gallery downtown. However, he said, the past is just that -- the past.

With the McPherson case, Spits said, "If it was anybody else, then the issue would be dropped and that would be the end of it now. But because there is this vendetta it seems against the church, it keeps getting dragged up, and the rest of us who are trying to build a community down here suffer for it."

Spits has heard critics of downtown redevelopment dismiss planned improvements as being created mainly for Scientologists to use. Spits, who is not a Scientologist, thinks some critics are trying to play on prejudices to help defeat downtown redevelopment plans. He argues that downtown redevelopment is for everyone in the city.

As the McPherson controversy dies down, Laurie Powers-Shamon, executive director of the Nature's Food Patch organic grocery, said she would encourage an attitude of tolerance toward the Church of Scientology in the community.

"I wish everybody would get along, and we could have peace in our community now," Powers-Shamon said. "Let's treat each other with respect, and let the city grow. I think as a company we've tried to set an example of tolerance in embracing diversity, and we'd like the city to follow in that direction."

But other residents expect wariness toward the church to continue, regardless of the decision to halt criminal prosecution. A civil case filed by McPherson's family over her death is still pending.

"I think it leaves more hanging in the air," former Mayor Rita Garvey said. "A woman died under their care."

The case against the church was seriously compromised, prosecutors said Monday, by possibly inaccurate and inconsistent statements made by Medical Examiner Joan Wood during the investigation of McPherson's death.

Even if the major recent controversy goes away, Garvey and others said that longtime residents of Clearwater are unlikely to forget past conflicts between the church and the city.

The trouble began when the church moved to Clearwater in 1975 with a plan, later revealed in FBI files, to smear local critics and stifle opposition by infiltrating local institutions, including newspapers, businesses and the state attorney's office. The Scientologists who conducted those activities were either disciplined or thrown out, church officials now say.

Later, a city ordinance designed to keep tabs on Scientology was shot down by an appellate court. Last year, after years of vigilance, police Chief Sid Klein ended an era when he announced that he no longer had an officer assigned to monitor Scientology.

"I think most people still think about what went on years ago," said City Commissioner J.B. Johnson. "I think it will take another generation or two to forget it."

Commissioner Ed Hart, a former pastor at Peace Memorial Presbyterian Church next door to the church's Fort Harrison Hotel headquarters, said he thinks the Church of Scientology still needs to work on how it is perceived.

"The Church seems to be trying to reach out and be a corporate citizen," Hart said. "But there is some mistrust that is still going to take time to get over. . . . They have to do as much as they can to improve their corporate image."

Roberto, who has received a lot of support from Scientologists in the community, said he thinks the church already has taken steps to improve its image. For instance, the church has offerred to sell a parcel of its land at a reasonable price to a pair of West Palm Beach developers to become part of new projects downtown, Roberto said.

Also, Roberto noted, the church has worked closely with the city to resolve all the issues of parking needed for its new meeting facility planned downtown, part of a $60-million to $90-million ongoing expansion of various church sites. And church members have become involved in city committees working to promote downtown.

"It's more valuable for the city to be on the front page in positive, constructive articles," Roberto said. "It helps the city, it helps the church. It's always better to move on."

- Times staff writer Thomas C. Tobin contributed to this report, which includes information from Times files.

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