Scientology adds quietly to holdings

Sherwood Gardens Apartments was bought in 1999, but the buyer's identity had been a mystery.

St. Petersburg Times/January 30, 2001
By Deborah O'Neil

Clearwater -- The Church of Scientology has purchased a 120-unit apartment complex just north of its sprawling Hacienda Gardens staff housing on Saturn Avenue.

Few people have heard about the church's $4-million purchase of Sherwood Gardens Apartments in 1999 -- the church bought it under a corporate name. No Scientology staff members live there now, but church spokesman Ben Shaw said Sherwood Gardens was purchased with an eye to the future.

In coming years, the Church of Scientology plans to nearly double the number of staff members in Clearwater when the massive "Super Power" building is completed downtown. When the church's expansion is complete, the Clearwater staff will go from its existing 1,300 to at least 2,000 -- and those additional 700 people will need somewhere to live.

"That's why Sherwood was gotten, as a stopgap for the future," said church spokesman Ben Shaw. "We wanted to make sure we had something." Shaw said most of the church's existing housing in Clearwater, including Hacienda Gardens, already is full.

"Absolutely, we're going to have a need for more housing," he said. "It's no question." But the church has not decided exactly what it will do with Sherwood Gardens, Shaw said.

The focus, he said, is on several major ongoing projects downtown, mainly the seven-story building going up across the street from the church's Fort Harrison Hotel. That building, which is officially named the Flag Building, will not be finished for about two more years, Shaw said. In addition, renovations are continuing on the Osceola Inn, a vacant retirement center across from the church's Sandcastle property. It is being renovated to accommodate parishioners who visit Sandcastle for advanced Scientology counseling.

For several years, the church has been buying downtown Clearwater property for Scientology offices, services and guest facilities. The church has $42-million of property listed in its name, almost all of it in Clearwater, according to the Pinellas County Property Appraiser's office. Sherwood Gardens is 3 miles from downtown, in a secluded neighborhood east of Saturn Avenue, adjacent to where Keene Road will eventually be extended.

Six of the seven apartment buildings in the complex were constructed in the early 1970s, and the last was added in 1981. It has a swimming pool and a clubhouse with a laundry room. Residents knew the complex had been sold, but didn't know who bought it.

City planning director Ralph Stone said he knew nothing about it. A real estate company is managing Sherwood Gardens for the church. "The rumors have been circulating for about a year," said Richard Lanoue, 45, a Baptist preacher who has lived at Sherwood Gardens for a year and a half. "I don't know when I heard it was Scientology, but it makes sense. They own the buildings just down the street. As long as you have a shuttle bus coming right here from downtown, it's a logical thing to do."

No tenants have been asked to leave, although longtime residents say it appears no effort has been made to fill apartments when they are vacated. About half the apartments are empty, said Jack Turk, 75, who has lived at Sherwood Gardens since 1977 and said he will wait and see what happens. "At least they could tell us," Turk said. "We don't even know who owns it. It's only beginning now to come out."

Many tenants told the Times they no longer have leases. Those interviewed also said rents have not increased since the church purchased the complex. Shaw said the church won't make any decisions about Sherwood Gardens for six months to a year. In the meantime, Shaw said, "nobody is going to ask them (the tenants) to go anywhere."

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