Tampa - The Church of Scientology is poised to become steward of perhaps the most iconic brick-and-mortar symbol of this fabled cigar town's history - a move that could signal a greater presence for Scientologists just outside downtown Tampa.
The church recently purchased Ybor Square for about $7 million, records show. The three-building complex at 1911 N. 13th St., between Eighth and Ninth avenues, is the former home of what was once the largest cigar factory in the world.
Built in 1886 by cigar magnate and Ybor City founder Don Vicente Martinez Ybor, the factory, and dozens of others, gave life to the diversity and cultural richness that became Tampa's legacy.
Cuban freedom fighter Jose Marti stood on the factory's cast-iron steps to deliver a speech in 1893. Factory workers processed tobacco leaves in the "stemmery" building, rolled cigars and listened to lectors read the latest news or novel.
"We are very aware of the historical significance of the building and we intend to honor that history in whatever plans we submit for approval," wrote church spokeswoman Ana Tirabassi in an email responding to questions posed by The Tampa Tribune.
Some welcome the Scientologists' commitment.
"I've had good experiences with them," said Tom Keating, president of the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce. "I think they will be good stewards of the building and I think the building needs some attention."
Ybor Square was the vision of businessman Harris Mullen who bought the property in the 1970s when Ybor City was on the decline. He moved his business magazine, Florida Trend, to the third floor. Other offices, antique stalls and restaurants including the Spaghetti Warehouse filled up the remaining spaces.
In 2002 ZOM Development of Orlando spent more than $6 million and transformed Ybor Square into an office complex with Florida Business Interiors as its first tenant.
Plans are to use two of the three buildings for offices. A multipurpose room would accommodate meetings, banquets, a "convention arrangement," lectures, film viewing and a 1-hour Sunday service.
About 120 employees will work at the facility Monday through Friday, with a separate staff of about 100 there during the weekend, Tirabassi's email states.
A move-in date is not determined while church officials meet with existing tenants. So far two tenants will remain - Creative Loafing and the Spaghetti Warehouse.
The church plans to close its existing Tampa facilities on North Habana Avenue and a "life improvement center" on Eighth Avenue in Ybor City.
Some people with reservations about the Scientologists' purchase of Ybor Square say the city is opening the door to more churches in an area set aside for tourists, shopping and entertainment. They point to the city's zoning regulations for this area of Ybor City which bar "places of religious assembly" but not "places of assembly."
"That would ruin the historical nature of Ybor City," said Carrie West, president of GaYBOR District Coalition, which promotes gay owned businesses and economic development in the community.
The church, which has its spiritual headquarters in Clearwater, has encountered opposition in some of the communities in which it has chosen to locate. Though it is recognized as a religious organization by the Internal Revenue Service, critics say it lacks characteristics of a traditional place of worship.
Some business and civic leaders in Ybor City worry about the potential loss of property tax revenues due to the church's tax-exempt status and the potential denial of alcohol licenses to future businesses opening within 1,000 feet of the church's property.
The Cuban Club has filed an appeal with the Barrio Latino Commission. It tentatively is scheduled to be heard July 20.
In her email, Tirabassi stated discussions have been on-going with the Cuban Club for several weeks. "We don't have a problem with anything they have brought up, and we are confident we will be able to work everything out amicably."
City attorney Chip Fletcher said city officials could amend Tampa's zoning code to address any confusion between "places of religious assembly" and "places of assembly." In practice the city has followed a federal standard that says both places must be treated equally.
Tirabassi said the church will pay some property taxes, and the life improvement center site in Ybor City eventually will go back on the city's tax rolls. Discussions are on-going about waivers for alcohol licenses.
"We do not have any problem with wet-zoned neighbors," the church's email response states.