City leaders tout group

Daily Breeze, Calfornia/November 13, 2011

In a stretch of downtown Inglewood dotted with shuttered shops and discount stores sits a gleaming new anomaly: a 45,000-square-foot edifice that will serve as the Church of Scientology's South Bay hub.

The church, founded by the late L. Ron Hubbard, bought the vacant building in 2007, fought with the city over whether it could open on South Market Street, and recently showed off the renovated, high-tech center to 5,000 Scientologists, community members and local politicians.

"We are looking forward to being part of this community," Erin Banks, a spokeswoman for the church, said during a recent tour.

It is now the third Scientology church to open in the Greater Los Angeles area, with the other facilities on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles and in Pasadena. Also this month, the church opened its first community center, housed in a 1930s-era art deco landmark on Vermont Avenue in South Los Angeles.

Both of the new locations were restored and completely renovated. By most measures, the Inglewood facility is not a traditional church.

The building, a former jewelry store that sat vacant for 12 years, includes meeting rooms, offices, a sauna used for religious purposes, a basement bookstore featuring Hubbard's vast works - most available in audio and video format - and a 1,855-square-foot chapel.

Upon entering, visitors are ushered into a spacious education area with a cafe, pleasant decor and about a dozen flat-screen monitors and video consoles, each with their own cushioned seating bench, offering information on the church's work around the globe, its public service projects, history, tenets and brief biographies of members in various professions across the country.

The church also has embarked on a similar public relations effort to media and others, sending regular emails about Scientologists and how they use the religious program in their work and family.

The church often has been associated with Hollywood celebrities such as Tom Cruise, Kirstie Alley and John Travolta, and has been the subject of controversy over the years. But Banks said the primary goal of the educational materials is "to make (Scientology) real for people. We want to show how this works in people's lives, in their families and how they put this to use at work."

The church describes itself as "a religion that offers a precise path leading to a complete and certain understanding of one's true spiritual nature and one's relationship to self, family, groups, mankind, all life forms, the material universe, the spiritual universe and the Supreme Being."

The philosophy and practices of the faith are based on Hubbard's 1950 book, "Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health." The Inglewood center includes a display and timeline of Hubbard's life, along with a replica of his office.

The program involves addressing irrational fears and trauma from the past through "auditing" sessions with trained facilitators who measure points of stress with a device called an e-meter. The goal is to delve into the subconscious and become clear of reactive inclinations, addressing eight dynamics beginning with self and ending with the Supreme Being.

The program also includes classes on everyday skills such as communication, marriage, ethics, family and self-fulfillment. The sauna and exercise area is used to rid the body of physical toxins such as smog, medications, drugs and alcohol.

The church has been criticized for the price of its programs, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars a year, depending on how often they are utilized. Classes and community programs, however, cost as little as $50, Banks said.

Asked why the church chose to locate in a low-income area, Banks said it will serve Scientologists in all parts of the South Bay, and intends to help improve the area.

Frizell Clegg, director of community affairs, added that Hubbard had a special mission to reach the black community, which he hopes to empower through his self-improvement programs.

"He saw a lot of potential in this community," said Clegg, who is black.

Raised a Baptist, Clegg said he joined the church about 40 years ago after strolling by a storefront Scientology center and taking a personality test. The man who administered the test knew that Clegg lied on the test - a fact that impressed him.

"He knew I wasn't being honest," he said. "But he really took interest in me. I never forgot that."

The church, in particular, touts its Drug-Free World program, a global humanitarian effort aimed at troubled youth. The new community center in South Los Angeles - former home of Hattam's Market and later Pepperdine University's administration offices - will offer a number of other programs for young people, including tutoring and ethics classes.

Police officials and city leaders, including Inglewood Councilman Ralph Franklin, attended the grand opening of the church and touted its programs and presence in downtown.

Franklin acknowledged, however, that the city questioned whether the church fit into the scheme of its downtown vision. The city's Planning Commission rejected the project in 2010, citing issues such as lack of parking and inconsistency with the business and retail mix of the area.

But a year ago, the City Council unanimously reversed that decision.

"After meeting with them, it was determined that they do have a strong market there," Franklin said. "Downtown Inglewood is the hub of the city, and it would be an opportunity for them to reach out and address the ills of the city, and help with people's mindset."

The church actually outbid the city itself to buy the vacant building in 2007. Inglewood officials had hoped to attract a retail anchor or mixed-use housing development for the site.

But given the down economy, officials said they were pleased to have a tenant make improvements to the building. The church is tax-exempt as a religious entity, but will pay sales tax on books it sells to the public.

Former Mayor and Councilman Danny Tabor, who was on the council when it approved the project, said the city also was obligated to approve the project because of federal laws that ensure religious groups aren't discriminated against in land-use decisions.

After a decadeslong battle with the Internal Revenue Service, the Church of Scientology and its affiliated corporations were granted tax-exempt status as a religious group in 1993.

"It is an attractive building," Tabor said. "We are hoping their investment will stimulate other investments in the downtown area."

The church will be open seven days a week, from 9:30a.m. to 10 p.m. on week days, and will be staffed by 175 church members, paid staff members and volunteers.

"We think this is a great location for people to come in off the street, get information, use our facilities," Banks said. "We want to become part of this community."

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