Scientology continues to buy land
By THOMAS C. TOBIN
© St. Petersburg Times, published August 20, 1998
LEARWATER -- The Church of Scientology has spent $3.2-million to purchase most of a city block across the street from its waterfront Sandcastle property, continuing its spate of downtown land buys over the last year.
The property's centerpiece is the former Osceola Inn, a vacant retirement center at 221 N Osceola Ave. The church will renovate it to accommodate parishioners who travel to Clearwater for Scientology counseling.
Since June 1997, the church and companies that represent it in real estate transactions have purchased 12 properties in the downtown core for a total of $7.2-million.
The latest purchase is part of the church's still-evolving plan to expand its counseling and hotel-like accommodations for visiting Scientologists, said church spokeswoman Pat Jones. In its publications, the church has referred to the plan as a large Scientology "campus" in the city's downtown core.
The church plans to construct a 300,000-square-foot counseling and office building across from its landmark Fort Harrison Hotel. It also plans a parking garage, a 3,500-seat auditorium, a major renovation of the Fort Harrison and a three-story addition to the Sandcastle, a Scientology resort and counseling complex on Drew Street overlooking Clearwater Harbor.
Once renovated by the church, the Osceola Inn will serve as an adjunct to the Sandcastle.
Church officials say they expect to attract thousands more Scientologists to Clearwater each year with the expansion.
Just four years ago, the Osceola Inn's then-owner, Tony Markopoulos, planned to raze the 85-room facility and turn it into a 240-room convention hotel that would have served the city's Harborview Center.
Markopoulos, who also owns the Days Inn Clearwater Beach, would not comment Wednesday. He sold the inn and an adjacent law office at 416 Drew St. to the church for $3.2-million, or nearly $2-million more than what he paid for the properties earlier this decade.
The church has been paying top dollar for downtown land over the past year, spending as much as 200 percent to 350 percent over taxable property values. The Osceola Inn and the adjacent law office sold to the church for 85 percent over the assessed value.
Jones emphasized that the Osceola Inn would remain on the city's tax rolls. Although much of the church's property is tax-exempt, its many hotel rooms in downtown are taxable.
The church's property tax bill in Clearwater last year was about $225,000, making it the largest property taxpayer in downtown.
Jones said the design for the renovated Osceola Inn would be "in keeping with the Sandcastle." She said the law office would remain as a tenant of the church.
The Osceola Inn property and law office comprise three-quarters of the block bounded by Drew Street on the south, Osceola Avenue on the west, N Fort Harrison Avenue on the east and Jones Street on the north. The remaining portion of the block is a vacant used car lot owned by Ray Cassano, a prominent figure in local Scientology circles.
The inn closed in 1993 because of financial problems. At the time, it was home to 61 elderly residents.