Scientologists Agree to Ease Hard-Sell Recruiting in Ybor

St. Petersburg Times/June 8, 2003
By Cory Schouten

Tampa -- How many roving Scientologists are too many?

The church, which has been criticized for aggressive canvassing in Ybor City, met with its neighbors last week and discussed that very question.

After the meeting, Ybor civic leader Vince Pardo was pleased. The Scientologists, he said, had agreed to dispatch no more than two people at a time to recruit new members from the streets of Ybor.

But church spokeswoman Ana Tirabassi didn't remember it that way. She said the church didn't limit itself to a number but simply agreed not to overwhelm the neighborhood.

Friday, after a reporter raised the discrepancy with Pardo, he opened a three-way conference call with church spokeswoman Pat Harney. When she avoided a firm commitment, he expressed disappointment.

"What you're doing is voluntary, and I appreciate that," said Pardo, executive director of the Ybor City Development Corp. "But I also appreciated that you came up with a number."

The church today celebrates the grand opening of its Scientology Life Improvement Center in a renovated olive packing plant at 1619 E Eighth Ave., adjacent to the Centro Ybor complex.

In recent weeks, community leaders have received complaints about the number of canvassers and the intensity of their pitches.

"I don't care if it's Church of Scientologists or census takers," Pardo said. "If you have too many people approaching people for questionnaires or money or religious conversion, it becomes harassment."

When the Scientologists learned about the concerns, they started talking to shop owners and promised to be good neighbors.

Wednesday, Pardo met with Harney and Tirabassi in the church's new digs.

Pardo said he told them about the concerns of business owners who had reported that church members followed customers onto Centro Ybor's property.

The Scientologists, he said, were apologetic. Pardo said the church agreed to remind members of its policy not to fol-low or harass people on sidewalks.

At issue, though, are numbers.

Pardo said he was told that the typical number of canvassers assigned to Ybor is from two to eight. According to Pardo, the church committed to limiting canvassers to two at a time.

Tirabassi said the church generally assigns no more than two members at a time but reserves the right to send more. The bottom line, Tirabassi said, is that the church wants to be sensitive to neighborhood concerns without limiting its own rights.

Pardo said he was encouraged by the Scientologists' "goodfaith, voluntary agreement."

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