Clearwater, Florida — Scientology is perhaps best-known for its most famous practitioner, Tom Cruise. But in this beachy Tampa suburb, Scientologists are neighbors, business owners, real-estate investors — and a growing force that makes some uncomfortable.
The Church of Scientology, despite its official status as a tax-exempt religious organization, is nonetheless the largest taxpayer in downtown Clearwater, home to its worldwide spiritual headquarters. The church and its members have flourished here, opening or refurbishing dozens of hotels, condos, office buildings and more, paying some $750,000 a year in taxes on revenue-generating properties, according to Mayor Frank Hibbard.
Today, Scientologists own much of downtown Clearwater. They've given new life to an ailing waterfront. They draw tourists and celebs such as Cruise and John Travolta, and they serve in a host of civic organizations. In one study commissioned by the church, Scientologists' direct spending in the community in 1999 was estimated at $119 million.
But not everyone is pleased. Many residents complain the church, its controversial history and unique beliefs alienate residents from a downtown that, despite the development and prime location minutes from the beach, remains sleepy. Downtown may look better, they say, but unless you're a Scientologist there's little reason to go there.
It's a quandary for city leaders, said Darryl Paulson, professor of government at the University of South Florida in neighboring St. Petersburg.
"There aren't many politicians who are opposed to real-estate development and expanding tax bases," he said. "In general it's a situation that any city-council member or city manager would like to have."
The downtown has "an unusual feel to it," said the Rev. William Rice, whose 4,000-member Calvary Baptist Church left downtown last year after nearly a century there. "... There are people in [Scientology] uniforms, and they are walking hurriedly from here to there. It is not a normal feel to a downtown city, where you have a variety of people. ... Downtown Clearwater has a dead feel to it."
The ambivalence in Clearwater hasn't discouraged Scientologists from making ambitious plans to develop other sites across Florida, part of a worldwide expansion. During a recent interview in an ornate conference room of a renovated downtown bank, church spokesman Ben Shaw talked of affluent Sarasota and Gainesville as possible new locations. He showed glossy photo-renderings of how properties the church has bought might look.
In recent years the church has invested $200 million in purchasing new property around the world, Shaw said, drawing on wealth it accumulates through high-level, fee-based training offered to parishioners and the Hubbard estate, among other sources.
Scientologists believe humans are immortal spiritual beings. Practitioners work to peel away layers of negativity that inhibit their spiritual beings, for some through a counseling process called auditing.
The church's management headquarters is in Los Angeles, but according to the church, up to 12,000 followers visit its spiritual center in Clearwater annually for spiritual training including auditing, which at the highest levels can cost tens of thousands of dollars.
Clearwater is home to more than 1,500 Scientology staffers who live in church-owned hotels and condos, where visiting Scientologists stay while undergoing training. In addition to uniforms, the church provides meals, medical care and a $75 weekly allowance for personal items such as books, movie tickets and haircuts.
When Scientologists bought the Fort Harrison Hotel in 1975, a downtown landmark where the Rolling Stones wrote "Satisfaction," without identifying themselves, it immediately engendered mistrust, said J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion and an expert on new faith movements.
Shaw said church leaders feel responsible for improving downtown on behalf of their international visitors. Hibbard, the mayor, said the city's downtown is indeed diverse with a variety of businesses, a new library and a refurbishment project under way on the main thoroughfare.
"We are not just a Scientology city," he said.
But Paulson, from the University of Florida, believes Scientologists' influence will probably grow. While local politicians tend to distance themselves from the church, he believes Scientologists' involvement in civic organizations — from development boards to the Girl Scouts — "may be a precursor to something that will follow."
"I wouldn't be a bit surprised if after that they go on and get involved in the political process, much more actively and much more openly involved to the point they will be running candidates," he said. "They have a substantial potential to influence."