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    Scientologists buy high-rise in Clearwater

    The church pays $5-million for the 13-story downtown property, which the church tried and failed to purchase years ago.

    By CHRISTINA HEADRICK and DEBORAH O'NEIL
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published December 20, 2001


    photo
    [Times photo: Boyzell Hosey]
    The Church of Scientology has purchased the 13-story Oak Cove building at 210 Osceola Ave. in downtown Clearwater.
    CLEARWATER -- The Church of Scientology has purchased a vacant 13-story high-rise downtown that will house more than 600 new staff members in another step in Scientology's unprecedented expansion in the city.

    The church last week closed the deal to buy the nearly 2-acre property for $5-million from a nonprofit corporation, BEF Inc., which does business as the Oaks of Clearwater.

    Scientology leaders have had their eye on the property, known as Oak Cove, for years. It is within two blocks of the massive Flag Building under construction downtown and across Osceola Avenue from the western facade of the church's Fort Harrison Hotel complex.

    The church tried to buy the high-rise years ago but the deal fell through, said Tom DeVocht, vice president of real estate and construction for the church.

    "We've been trying and trying," DeVocht said. "There was finally a little breakthrough on it. We said, 'Let's take it.' "

    In the past, city officials expressed concern about the church's possible acquisition of Oak Cove, considering it a prime piece of property for downtown redevelopment. The high-rise sits on Clearwater's bluff overlooking Clearwater Harbor.

    On Wednesday, City Manager Bill Horne said simply, "Any kind of residential living in the area has to be construed as a plus for downtown."

    Church officials say a large portion of the property will be on the tax rolls because it will be housing for Scientology staff. The church also plans a $1.5-million renovation, including new air conditioning, carpeting and paint. A small cafeteria inside likely will be used to serve staff members breakfast.

    The building will house hundreds of the estimated 700 to 1,000 new staff members the church will need when its $50-million Flag Building is completed in 2003. The church, which expects to eventually have at least 2,000 staff members living in Clearwater, has been preparing for the expansion for years.

    In 1999, it quietly paid $4-million for the 120-unit Sherwood Gardens apartments just north of its sprawling Hacienda Gardens staff housing complex on Saturn Avenue, east and north of downtown. Sherwood Gardens also will be used for new staff housing. But unlike Sherwood and Hacienda Gardens, which are about 3 miles from downtown, the converted Oak Cove will put staffers within walking distance of downtown church facilities.

    "We're pretty excited because it's a good opportunity to consolidate our facilities and to be able to have a place where staff don't have to travel every day," said church spokesman Ben Shaw.

    Built in 1975, the Oak Cove complex was a retirement community with about 275 one- and two- bedroom apartment units. It faced financial troubles during the 1980s.

    At 210 Osceola Ave., the property has been nearly empty since 1990, except for a 56-unit nursing home, which was closed in 1999. The building hasn't been used because it needs an overhaul, said Oaks executive director David Jones.

    "Our view was, 'It's good someone wants to make something of it,' " Jones said.

    The nonprofit company that had owned Oak Cove will now focus on its other holding in the city, the Oaks of Clearwater retirement community, located on nearby Bay Avenue overlooking Clearwater Harbor, Jones said.

    After the sale of its other property, the Oaks is planning to refinance its debt and complete about $1-million in renovations, including a new paint job, renovated front lobby and possibly a swimming pool and dock, Jones said.

    None of the residents or staff members at the Oaks will be affected by the sale, Jones said.

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