Wisconsin town wonders what silent owner wants

Minneapolis Star Tribune/May 1, 2005
By Kevin Duchschere

Shawano, WIS. – It’s unlikely you’ll run into R.C. Samanta Roy on the streets of Shawano, a bustling river city of 8,400. All the same, he seems to be everywhere.

On recently renovated Main Street there’s the antiques and gift store that a subsidiary of the Dr. R.C. Samanta Roy Institute of Science and Technology operates after buying it earlier this year.

Around the corner and down the street, you’ll find other properties that the institute or associated groups have purchased, including several vacant storefronts, a motel and three service stations, including one that competitors sued for illegally undercutting gas prices – the same sort of charges made last month against a gas station the institute recently opened in Anoka. No wonder Shawano Mayor Lorna Marquardt wants to visit with Samanta Roy about his business plans.

Samanta Roy, 65, has been an enigmatic figure in Shawano since the mid-1970s, when he moved to the area from southern Minnesota and organized a small band of believers called the Disciples of the Lord Jesus.

Marquardt, city administrator Jim Stadler and the head of a local economic development group say they have extended several invitations for Samanta Roy or his managers to discuss the group’s plans, to no avail.

Samanta Roy and his associates also didn’t respond to requests for interviews for this report.

“That veil of secrecy, that isn’t something the community has dealt with,” Marquardt said.

When Samanta Roy moved to the area, he was known as Brother Rama Behera, a native of India who grew up Hindu, came to the United States to study nuclear engineering and underwent a dramatic conversion one afternoon when he said Jesus appeared and spoke to him.

For the last several years he has been listed as president of the Dr. R.C. Samanta Roy Institute of Science and Technology, which according to federal tax records operates a school in India. Of 10 members on the board of directors, seven are listed as living in Minnesota.

According to the Shawano Leader newspaper, which published an exhaustive series on the group last fall, Samanta Roy and his lieutenants have said they want to built a secular K-12 campus on undeveloped property in Wescott Township, outside of Shawano.

In the past five years, the group has bought dozens of properties in and around the city; the amount it spent on property in Shawano alone is $6.4 million.

Minnesota stations

Since late 2003, the group has also purchased gas stations in Anoka, St. Paul, Albert Lea and Oakdale.

According to the Leader, a representative of the group told the Shawano city council last summer that the group plans to open a range of businesses – including a fabric store, a home furnishing store and a newsstand. But most of those plans remain unrealized and several properties remain vacant several months after being purchased.

At other times, representatives have said they hoped their local businesses would help them raise the money needed to build and run the school.

But city officials said that doesn’t explain why the Samanta Roy group has paid top dollar for some properties and has left other properties vacant for several months after purchase. Competitors and city officials also wonder how the group’s stations are able to sell gasoline at unusually low prices.

And it begs another question, said Steve Sengstock, executive director of Shawano County Economic Progress, Inc.: “If you have the money to buy the properties, why don’t you use the money to build the school?”

Band of brethren

Apparently, the last time Samanta Roy sat down for a newspaper interview was in 1976, when he spoke to a Minneapolis Tribune reporter about his religious conversion and the group of 150 brethren, as he called them, to whom he conveyed Jesus’ will. According to the Tribune story, he said Jesus had given him the power to read minds, predict the future and heal disease.

He had arrived in Minnesota a few years before, when he married a woman from St. Charles, Minn., and began preaching a unique blend of Christian and Jewish tenets in the Rochester and Mankato areas.

A few years later, two of his Minnesota adherents sued their parents and deprogrammers for attempting to break them out of the group. Samanta Roy, then Behera, denied that he controlled his followers. “No one is forced, but all have freely chosen to follow the Lord Jesus in a strict way,” he wrote in a letter to the Tribune in 1976.

According to the Leader, Samanta Roy no longer lives fulltime in Shawano. His home, a ranch-style house, is in a wooded area north of town. A woman sitting in a car parked in front of the house last week said no one was available to talk to a reporter.

In recent years, several former members have complained of mistreatment. Rick Ross, a nationally recognized New Jersey expert on controversial movements, said: “The pattern of claims about the group is that it’s very demanding.”

Downtown gaps

The group didn’t get much attention in Shawano until it began buying more property in 2000. Early purchases included a fudge shop on Main Street and a Mobil station on Green Bay Street, the city’s major east-west route.

That gas station soon raised the ire of competitors who struggled to match its rock-bottom prices while staying within Wisconsin’s legal minimum price. Several station owners joined together to sue the Samanta Roy Institute for unfair competitive practices in the fall of 2002, and won. Samanta Roy is appealing the ruling.

The case is being watched closely by the service station industry in Minnesota, where the Commerce Department is believed to be investigating a gas price war in Anoka that competitors say was sparked by an Exxon station owned by Samanta Roy. Competitors alleged that the station dipped below the legal minimum price several times; an attorney for the Samanta Roy group said their discounted price was legal and that the competitors used similar pricing tactics.

The assessed value of the Samanta Roy properties in Shawano now amounts to $5.7 million. That’s a small fraction of the city’s total assessed value of $450 million, but many of the vacant Samanta Roy properties, especially those downtown, are in locations that city officials believe could support viable businesses. They said it’s frustrating to see those buildings effectively taken off the market for months at a time with the corresponding loss of tax base and jobs.

“We’d like to do what we can to encourage occupancy in these businesses,” City Administrator Jim Stadler said. “To have gaps in the downtown area is a detriment.” He added that several mini-malls have sprung up in the last few years for businesses unable to find good locations.

‘What’s going on?’

Downtown business owners, none of whom wanted to be named, had mixed views about the Samanta Roy properties. All want to see the vacant buildings used, but some also praised the convenient hours and operations of the Samanta Roy businesses already open. The Samanta Roy group has a right to do business as it sees fit, they agreed, but more communication would quell a lot of the their concerns – which they denied are rooted in prejudice, as group members sometimes suggest.

Criticism of the group, Sengstock said, isn’t “racially or religiously motivated. It’s ‘What’s going on? Why won’t you tell us?’”

Other questions about the Samanta Roy group’s plans and financial health keep emerging. For instance, after 10 years of paying on time, the Samanta Roy group is delinquent in Shawano County for more than $33,000 in property taxes, according to county records reviewed last week.

There don’t appear to be any delinquent taxes or unpaid sales tax permits in Minnesota, according to county and state records. But a clerk at the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions said the annual report is overdue for Midwest Oil of Minnesota, the institute’s for-profit subsidiary. And Midwest Amusement Park, a facility outside of Shawano that the group bought in 2003, is being sued by a Green Bay firm for failing to pay a $79,000 bill for construction of a go-kart track.

The city and county of Shawano each put the brakes on the park’s racetrack a couple weeks ago. County officials said that races wouldn’t be allowed without a new permit, and the city council denied the Samanta Roy group’s request to annex the track. The council also is considering an ordinance requiring property owners to register vacant properties with the city.

Samanta Roy and his group aren’t supplying any answers. Following a Star Tribune story in April on the Anoka gas price controversy, they sued the newspaper, along with the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the Duluth News Tribune, WCCO-TV and KSTP-TV, for defamation and interfering with business. Several efforts to interview representatives, over the telephone and in Shawano, drew no response.

Shawano leaders continue to hope that the gulf that has long existed between Samanta Roy and the rest of the community may yet be bridged. Whether it is or not, however, the city will continue to grow and prosper, Marquardt said.

“We’re very proud of Shawano and we’d certainly like to see the downtown filled with businesses and so on. Is it a concern? Yes, certainly,” she said. “But I think the downtown will thrive and survive with or without Dr. Samanta Roy.

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