Church of Scientology seeks expansion in Ybor City

St. Petersburg Times/May 4, 2010

Tampa - The Church of Scientology is looking to expand its presence in Ybor City.

The church is considering buying or leasing space in Ybor Square, according to a letter to the city of Tampa zoning administrator from Ana Tirabassi, Scientology's corporate secretary.

Tirabassi wrote that the church has outgrown its current Tampa facilities on Habana Avenue in West Tampa, which the church bought in 2001 and 2003.

"We would very much like to relocate entirely to Ybor City," she wrote.

The church plans to occupy two of the three buildings - the factory and the stemmery, where stems were pulled from tobacco plants -- that make up Ybor Square, and "to leave the existing tenants, Spaghetti Warehouse and Creative Loafing, in the Warehouse Building for the foreseeable future."

In the letter to zoning administrator Cathy Coyle, Tirabassi asked for a decision on whether the church would be allowed under current zoning regulations to use the space for banquets, lectures, films and one-hour Sunday services in addition to offices.

Coyle answered that those uses would be allowed.

Ybor Square, at Ninth Avenue and 13th Street, is the site of the cigar factory complex once owned be the historic district's namesake, Don Vicente Martinez Ybor. It's listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

"We have a better than average record of maintaining historically significant properties in Tampa and Clearwater, and will continue that record if allowed to occupy this property," Tirabassi wrote.

Previously, the complex included a shopping center. Orlando-based ZOM Corp. bought the buildings in 2000 for nearly $4 million and converted them to offices.

The church is under contract to make a decision on the property by Wednesday, Tirabassi wrote.

Scientology already operates a life improvement center in a 6,600-square-foot Ybor City storefront on Eighth Avenue, bought in 2004 for $1.2 million, according to the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser's Office.

"There was concern by some members of the community when they bought the building on Eighth Avenue," said Vince Pardo, manager of the Ybor City Development Corporation. "Initially, I had some complaints because they were on the streets quite a bit with these personality tests."

He said activities slowed after he talked with church leaders.

"It worked out pretty well, and we've had a pretty good relationship since then," Pardo said. "They've been a good neighbor. They keep their property up. They've done some community service projects in the district."

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