This was to be a year of major expansion for the Church of Scientology in Tampa Bay and elsewhere in Florida.
It bought visible downtown properties in Plant City and in St. Petersburg in 2006. With each purchase, church officials talked excitedly of having outreach centers up and running by summer’s end.
Similar centers were to open in six other Florida cities by year’s end, church officials announced, saying interest in Scientology was burgeoning.
But the Plant City and St. Petersburg buildings sit empty. No other expansion occurred elsewhere.
And in Clearwater, Scientology’s international spiritual headquarters, the church’s massive Super Power building sat unfinished on the inside for the fourth straight year, which could cost the church tens of thousands in fines if it fails to stick to revised completion deadlines.
Pat Harney, a Clearwater-based church spokeswoman, said the openings of the Plant City and St. Petersburg centers were delayed to allow further study of community needs, and then to tailor the interior designs to meet those needs.
Church leaders are not fazed, Harney said, by the apparent pattern of overpromising because they see the big picture. And she dismissed speculation that lack of money had slowed the projects.
“It is never a financial issue with us,” Harney said.
Millions are being spent on significant Scientology construction and remodeling projects in Clearwater, other than the lifeless Super Power building.
A $3.5-million, 725-space parking garage is nearing completion just east of the church’s landmark Fort Harrison Hotel.
West of the hotel, renovations have started on the 13-story Oak Cove building, formerly an assisted living facility.
The church bought the property overlooking Clearwater Harbor for $5-million and is spending $1.5-million converting it into a hotel for visiting Scientologists.
And in north Clearwater, the church is remodeling the 107-unit Sherwood Gardens apartments. It will become staff housing.
The new completion date for the Super Power building, which sits on a full city block downtown, now is mid 2008.
The facilities in Plant City and St. Petersburg were purchased by the Church of Scientology of Tampa, which will open the centers.
The Tampa church’s mission is different from the Clearwater church, where Scientologists from all over the world come for the highest levels of Scientology training. The Tampa church provides lower levels of Scientology training and actively seeks to recruit new members to Scientology.
The Tampa church made a splash in April when it purchased a building in quaint and quiet downtown Plant City and announced intentions to open a recruitment facility there by the summer. The interiors have been cleaned out, but much renovation work remains. It’s still not open.
More headlines came in June when the church announced its first push into St. Petersburg. It paid $1.6-million for a building across from Williams Park, and officials promised it would be renovated and also open by the end of summer. But no work has been done and the only signs of the church’s presence are a series of posters on the front windows, a stack of Dianetics books and a television with an introductory video on Scientology running on a constant loop.
Announced plans to open even more facilities in Lakeland, Gainesville, Cocoa Beach, Tallahassee, Jacksonville and Sarasota by year’s end also failed to materialize.
Harney said the church originally planned to open a life improvement center in Plant City similar to the one in Ybor City. There, the center is geared toward attracting passers-by for stress or personality tests, videos or lectures, to introduce them to Scientology.
That’s probably not a good model for Plant City, Harney said. Instead, she said, the church plans more community outreach programs.
Church members have developed ties in Plant City’s Hispanic community, and a pilot project to teach English as a second language was well received, said Louise Cournoyer, who oversees social betterment programs for the Tampa church.
Ebony Awakening, a group of black Scientologists, also has linked with leaders in Bealsville, a small African-American community south of Plant City that was founded by former slaves.
Scientology plans to partner with Bealsville leaders to introduce the literacy, study and drug treatment programs developed by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.
“I’m sold on this,” said Donald Hallback, a Bealsville community leader. “The community has always been open and hospitable to anyone who brings value and significance to the community. Right now, Scientology is taking the lead role in bringing programs to Bealsville.”
Hallback said he is doing a Scientology “personal integrity” course.
Cournoyer said the interior of the Plant City building has to be designed to be flexible enough to accommodate some of those community outreach projects.
The St. Petersburg center will more closely resemble the one in Ybor, Harney said. Renovations of that building have been delayed so that both it and the Plant City centers can open at the same time in the spring. Two weeks ago, the church began to offer weekly lectures on Scientology on the second floor.
“We could open them tomorrow if we wanted to,” Harney said. “We just wanted to be certain we will be giving the community something it needs and wants.”
The centers will act as models for expansion, Harney said, and the plans for other centers around the state won’t move forward until those two centers are up and running.
In Clearwater, the church this month got city permits and a development order to complete the exterior of its Super Power building.
Last year, the city lost patience with Scientology’s lack of progress. The code enforcement board ordered the exterior, including landscaping and sidewalks, to be completed by early summer.
Technically, the church is accruing daily fines of $250 — now totalling more than $40,000 — for failing to meet that deadline.
But the city and the church have agreed on a new timetable for completion. If the church meets it, city officials expect the fine will be forgiven.
“Things are happening,” said Jeff Kronschnabl, Clearwater’s director of development and neighborhood services.
“They are now on a faster track than before. They are moving in the right direction and we’ll continue to monitor it.”
If work finishes by mid 2008, as now promised, that will be six years later than originally billed.