Reaction mixed to plan for church

Emotions run the gamut about a proposal to turn a Largo building into a Scientology mission.

St. Petersburg Times/December 21, 2000
By Eric Stirgus

Largo -- When she moved to this city in 1946, Nelle Attaway attended the large, white church with the stained glass windows at the corner of First Avenue and Sixth Street SW.

She went faithfully to what was then called First Baptist Church of Largo, seeking spiritual growth inside its vaulted ceilings before the congregation moved in 1967. Although it has been decades since Attaway worshiped there -- now the home of Abundant Life Ministries -- she feels an emotional attachment to the church. So she was disturbed Wednesday morning after reading that a prominent Scientologist is leading an effort to buy the building to create a Scientology mission in downtown Largo.

"My blood pressure is still up," said Attaway, 77, who lives within walking distance of the church. The potential presence of Scientology here had those who live and work in downtown Largo talking Wednesday, a day after the plans became public.

Kathy Feshbach, 51, a Scientologist for 18 years, said she wants to create a mission to meet the needs of new Scientologists. Feshbach said she is working with two partners.

Some residents said they had no problem with their prospective neighbor. "Gee whiz, this is the United States of America. I don't know if somebody should be refused the opportunity to buy a piece of property," said Greater Largo Chamber of Commerce president Marc Mansfield, who stressed he was not speaking for the organization.

Several commissioners said they got telephone calls on the issue from residents Wednesday. Some said they were concerned about the proposed sale. A couple of people called the mayor's office saying they think Feshbach has the right to buy the building, but they wish the city could find a loophole to stop the sale. One person sent two e-mails to the mayor's office expressing outrage.

In interviews, some who have read and heard about the difficult history of Scientology in neighboring Clearwater said they were wary about a mission near West Bay Drive, where city officials and community leaders have struggled to spark economic redevelopment. The city is spending $4.2-million on road improvements and beautification efforts on a stretch of West Bay Drive.

"I know they do a lot of good, but they control people's minds," said Vice Mayor Jean Halvorsen. Then there were others, like City Commissioner Pat Burke. Although Burke agrees that Feshbach has the right to buy the building, she said she wishes the current owners would sell the property to someone who can open a business that will encourage people to invest in downtown.

"I would hope for something that would be a catalyst for bringing businesses in," she said. Leonard Levin, who owns West Coast Garage, a prominent business in downtown Largo, said he was ambivalent about the presence of a Scientology mission a few blocks away from his shop.

Mansfield said he was unsure what the potential sale to Feshbach would mean for downtown Largo. "We'll have to wait and see if it has an impact on the redevelopment efforts," he said.

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