Scientology Church Eyes West Tampa

The Tampa Tribune/April 18, 2002
By Shannon Behnken

Tampa -- The Church of Scientology of Tampa might move its headquarters to a refurbished cigar factory in West Tampa.

The church bought the Andres Diaz building at 3102 N. Habana Ave. in October for $1.1 million and has inquired about other cigar buildings and houses in the neighborhood, Executive Director Sheri Payson said Wednesday.

"We're expanding and need more space,'' she said.

The church rents an office at 3617 Henderson Blvd. in south Tampa. The building was sold, Payson said, and the church needs to move soon.

The cigar factory is the only property the church owns in Tampa. It leases a storefront in Ybor City where it recently opened a bookstore.

Payson said the church chose West Tampa because it needs large buildings and wants to be a part of neighborhood revitalization. The 18,000-square-foot Andres Diaz building would become office space and classrooms, she said.

If the church moves into the West Tampa building, it will apply for a tax exemption, Payson said.

Earl Haugabook, president of the West Tampa Chamber of Commerce, doesn't like the sound of that.

"I don't feel good about them purchasing property in West Tampa,'' he said. "I know the organization and how they move into an area and use their influence, like in Clearwater. The next thing you know, they could take over West Tampa, too. We don't want that for this neighborhood.''

The Church of Scientology, founded by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, bought the Fort Harrison Hotel in downtown Clearwater in 1975.

Two years later, the FBI raided church offices in Washington and Los Angeles. Among seized documents were plans to take control of Clearwater through city leaders and major institutions.

After years of controversy, the city has eased its stance toward Scientology officials.

The church owns 33 properties in and around downtown Clearwater, valued at $46 million, according to the Pinellas County Property Appraiser's Office. Of that, $30 million worth is exempt from taxes for religious purposes; another $15 million remains on the tax rolls.

Payson said members will ``go door-to-door'' in West Tampa and host an open house.

"We want to be open with neighbors,'' Payson said, noting that she would like to speak to neighborhood groups.

City Councilwoman Mary Alvarez said she hopes the church "won't put something controversial'' in the building.

"I can't say I'm pleased about this because of the church's reputation in Clearwater,'' she said.

The area around the cigar factory, a block north of Columbus Drive, is mostly residential. Alvarez said residents should band together.

"They should have a united voice on this,'' she said.

Joseph Petralia, owner of Petralia Advertising Inc., has rented office space in the Andres Diaz building for the past four years.

When the church bought the building in October, he said tenants were told the church would move in, then that told it wouldn't, then told the church would sell it.

In early February, Petralia said, church officials said they might move in after all but that the tenants could stay until then.

Petralia said that when his rent doubled to $2,000, he moved out.

"I don't think our cigar factories are an appropriate place for this church,'' said Petralia, who lives in West Tampa. ``If they buy up our buildings, we'll lose our heritage.

"This is scary to me.''

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