The international headquarters for the Church of Scientology is in Clearwater. In two years, the church has become a major landowner downtown, threatening a waterfront redevelopment project and raising questions about the church's motives.
Tampa Bay Times reporter Tracey McManus' article “Clear Takeover: How Scientology doubled its downtown Clearwater footprint in 3 years" explains the land acquisition stems from the church's mission.
"When the church arrived in Clearwater in 1975, the internal memos that were uncovered by the FBI outline a plan for the church to establish control in the area," McManus said.
She says control is so important to the church that it resorted to espionage.
"They infiltrated local government and civic offices, they put a spy in the Clearwater Sun newspaper, the State Attorney's Office, the Chamber of Commerce,” McManus said. “They ran smear campaigns on their enemies, including the mayor at the time, Gabe Cazares. What we see today is that they're trying to gain control through land acquisition."
As to why the purchases spiked in 2017, McManus says it may be part of a vendetta.
"The property purchases follow two important events,” she said. “One is the city's development and pursuing of its massive redevelopment project on the waterfront that is intended to revitalize the surrounding retail core, and also the city's snubbing of Scientology leader David Miscavige in April of 2017. When the council voted to buy a 1.4-acre vacant lot that the church also bet on, we found that these property purchases by LLCs tied to Scientology took off after those events."
The economic consequences of the church's purchases are not going unnoticed. McManus reports the church owns about 60 properties in Pinellas County, and that "72% of those are tax exempt for religious purposes."
The properties that were bought by LLCs tied to Scientology do remain on the tax rolls, and the church is paying property taxes on them.
But McManus points to another side of the problem. Many of the buildings are vacant.
"If the new property owners do not develop their properties and kind of just sit on them and squat on them, there's no economic benefit to the public,” McManus said. “So that's really a major impact."
McManus says she plans to keep following the story for several reasons. One is the unique presence of the church and that it “is the only religion with its international spiritual headquarters in downtown Clearwater." Another is simply because it is downtown Clearwater’s largest landowner.
The church’s behavior also jibes with the newspaper's mission. McManus feels a responsibility to keep investigating.
"It's also the only religious group I'm aware of that arrived in the ‘70s with written plans to take control of the area and has had a long history of hostile behavior towards the city government and the community,” McManus said. “No other religion has behaved this way. And it's our job to hold powerful institutions accountable.
“And Scientology is a powerful institution in Clearwater and they own a lot of property. They have influence and, you know, it's our job to shine a light on the behavior."