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Scientologists buy Red Cross building

By THOMAS C. TOBIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 29, 1998


CLEARWATER -- The Church of Scientology has completed the latest in a series of land purchases that will help clear the way for its downtown expansion project.

Property records show that Scientology recently spent $1.1-million to buy the longtime Clearwater offices of the American National Red Cross at 624 Court St.

The purchase brings the church closer to controlling an entire city block along Court Street. The only properties remaining in that block are three small publicly owned parking lots and an alley that runs the length of the block. The city owns the alley and two of the lots. The county owns the third lot, which it uses for employee parking.

City and county officials say the church has approached them about trading land to get the remaining lots. The church wants to develop most of the block into parking spaces for a massive new Scientology building planned on S Fort Harrison Avenue, across from the church's Fort Harrison Hotel.

The block is bounded by Court Street on the south, Franklin Street on the north, Garden Avenue on the west and East Avenue on the east.

With its acquisition of the Red Cross building, Scientology continues a land-buying spate in downtown that includes properties outside the block. Since June 1997, it has made 12 purchases totaling $7.2-million and expanded its Clearwater holdings to more than 30 properties valued at more than $35-million.

The property appraiser's office has said it will not know until later in the expansion project how much of the newly acquired property will be tax-exempt.

Scientology has been paying steep prices for the land, on average about 75 percent higher than the property appraiser's assessment for taxing purposes.

The Red Cross building was no exception. It sold for 65 percent more than the assessed value. The $1.1-million transaction took place Dec. 1, according to the deed, but it was not recorded with the county until last week.

Scientology recently broke ground for what it says will be a $45-million "Ministerial Training and Pastoral Counseling Center." The six-story building will feature a 150-foot tower topped by a large eight-point Scientology cross.

At 370,000 square feet, the structure will be one of the largest office buildings in Pinellas County. It will contain a glass-enclosed lobby, offices, training rooms for Scientology counselors, who are called "auditors," and private rooms for Scientology's core practice, known as "auditing."

Elevated walkways will join the building to the Fort Harrison Hotel on the west and to a planned 3,500-seat auditorium to the south.

Currently, the church's plans call for two six-story parking garages on the Court Street block. But the purchase of the Red Cross building will give Scientology more room to make the garages lower, church officials said Monday.

The Red Cross has a lease with the church to stay in the building for another year, Scientology spokesman Brian Anderson said.

He said the church plans to apply for permits next month to begin heavy construction. Workers have been clearing the site in recent weeks and testing the ground in preparation for the foundation.

Robert Keller, an assistant city manager in Clearwater, said the church has discussed the possibility of swapping land for the two public lots it needs near the Red Cross building. He said talks would resume next month.

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