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Scientologist to buy downtown Largo site

A church building would be converted into a Scientology mission with classes and a bookstore.

By DEBORAH O'NEIL

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 20, 2000


LARGO -- A prominent Scientologist is leading an effort to buy an 86-year-old church in downtown Largo, where she plans to open a Scientology mission, a development that has raised concerns among some city officials.

The investment is a substantial one. The newly incorporated Church of Scientology Mission of Largo Inc. is paying $389,000 for the church at 160 Sixth St. SW and the house behind it at 520 Cleveland Ave.

The site is as prominent as any in Largo's redevelopment district, just one block south of West Bay Drive, where the city is spending $4.2-million on road improvements and beautification.

The mission is the venture of Kathy Feshbach, 51, of Belleair, who said she is working with two partners. She has been a Scientologist for 18 years and her family is a major contributor to the Church of Scientology and its related organizations.

The mission's purpose will be to meet the needs of new Scientologists. Feshbach said it will be staffed with five to 10 people and will have a bookstore. Classes, spiritual counseling and training will be offered, she said.

"Will there be some kind of dissemination of information about Scientology and what it can do for others? Absolutely," Feshbach said. "We want people to know what Scientology can do for them."

The mission is the third in Pinellas County. There is one in Palm Harbor and one on Belcher Road in Clearwater, identifiable only by a simple sign outside that reads: Dianetics.

The mission signed a contract with church owner Abundant Life Ministries of Largo on Nov. 30, and a closing date has been set for the end of January. Feshbach said she and her partners are planning some interior renovations to the 7,600-square-foot building, but will preserve the character of the church, built in 1914 as the First Baptist Church of Largo.

"We love the fact that it's a church," Feshbach said. "That's why I wanted to buy it . . . I definitely want to keep it a religious spot."

Missions are separate from the Scientology organization in downtown Clearwater, which is a spiritual retreat for advanced Scientology services.

Church spokeswoman Pat Harney said missions receive their materials and are assisted by Scientology Missions International, which is part of Scientology's mother church in Los Angeles. While Feshbach is a Scientology parishioner, she is not on the church's staff.

News of the Scientology mission was making its way through City Hall this week, after Clearwater attorney Ed Armstrong inquired in writing last week about whether the mission needs any permits to operate at the site. It does not.

Armstrong also represents the Church of Scientology in Clearwater, but he said his representation of Feshbach is independent of his work with the church.

Feshbach has scheduled a meeting in January with Largo Mayor Bob Jackson, who said that the mission's presence in Largo may scare off some who might be interested in operating a business downtown. He added, however, that he didn't foresee any problems.

"This is America," Jackson said Tuesday afternoon. "We can't discriminate based on personal preferences. We are a nation of laws and if people are law-abiding, then they deserve a chance of happiness."

But other commissioners were less welcoming. Commissioner Mary Laurance said she has been unimpressed with Scientology's presence in downtown Clearwater. "There are some things you can skip and dance around. This is not one of them," Laurance said. "I just want to be very clear: I'm very against having them in downtown Largo."

Commissioner Harriet Crozier said while she was not clear on the details, when she heard about the mission, "I got an upset stomach."

"To think Scientology or some form of it might be encroaching in the community doesn't sit well with me," she said.

Feshbach said she was excited about being downtown and praised the city's redevelopment efforts. She said she intends to meet with each commissioner to explain her plans.

"I'm going to introduce myself and show them I'm a professional person and get in communication with them and find out what it is they are doing to expand their city and what I can do to help them," Feshbach said. "I think they will be happy to have me as part of their city."

- Staff writers Eric Stirgus and Tom Tobin and researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

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