Four decades ago, the Church of Scientology began planning to take over the city of Clearwater, Florida by infiltrating local government and other influential non-government entities in the city. Now it appears that the Church’s plan has come to fruition. With control over more than a quarter billion dollars of real estate in the downtown area, Scientology has the largest influence on city officials in regards to development. Scientology’s presence has for decades casted a shadow over Clearwater, and has led to the city being known for its geographic concentration of Scientology rather than its miles of pristine beaches. This article is intended to summarize the sordid history of the relationship between the city of Clearwater and the Church of Scientology.
The birth of Scientology began with the publication of Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health by L. Ron Hubbard in 1950. In the book, Hubbard developed a system of psychotherapy that defined aspects of the human mind, interwoven with Eastern philosophy. The best-selling book was well received by readers, but scientists and medical professionals dismissed the claims as pseudoscience due to lack of empirical evidence and baseless departures from well-established psychology literature.
Nonetheless, the practice of Dianetics and perceived legitimacy of Hubbard increased. For the layman, Dianetics was similar to Freudian psychoanalysis in practice, but vastly different in principle. A flood of new members joined during the 1960s, and enjoyed the benefits of pseudo psychotherapy and would not learn the Scientology creation myth until several years and thousands of dollars later. With increasing income and continuing criticism from the scientific community, Hubbard began to transition Dianetics into a religion. The newly formed Church of Scientology tried to avoid paying taxes, and dodged claims of practicing medicine without a license under the guise of religion. Scientology used the religious claim in legal battles with varying degrees of success until 1993, when Scientology became a federally recognized religion.
In a 1977 raid on Scientology headquarters, the FBI discovered secret plans for the Church to take over Clearwater. The plan was called Project Normandy, and the stated purpose was to “obtain enough data on the Clearwater area to be able to determine what groups and individuals [we] will need to penetrate and handle in order to establish area control.” Among other clandestine activities discovered by the FBI, the Church also plotted to take control of local media and smear critics of Scientology.
Prior to the FBI raid, the Church of Scientology used a shell company to purchase the Fort Harrison Hotel, along with other downtown properties. Currently, the Fort Harrison Hotel is referred to by Scientologists as the “Flag Land Base” and is used by practitioners studying at higher levels of Scientology than new memebers. Since 1980, three Scientologists have died in the building due to dehydration, blood clots brought on by excessive bedrest and a suspicious drowning in a bathtub. Former Scientologists have since spoken out against the institution’s prison-like conditions and human rights violations.
The Church of Scientology has met resistance from residents of Clearwater, but has always managed to overcome any obstacle. As early as 1982, the City Commission of Clearwater began holding hearings about Scientology, amidst complaints that the Church was a cult. Over 500 residents signed petitions in support of the hearings, while Scientologists unsuccessfully sued to block the hearings. These hearings led to city ordinances that attempted to reel in the Church’s local power. The City of Clearwater passed multiple ordinances that required non-profits to report fundraising activity within the city, and attempted to reduce fraud by any group claiming to be charitable. In each instance, the Church was able to get ordinances repealed, usually after lengthy legal battles.
Since 1980, the Church has been sued by former memebers alleging enslavement at the Clearwater branch, critics claiming harassment and a class-action suit alleging the Church tried to bribe or blackmail Florida judges involved in Scientology cases. Most of these case files have been sealed by courts due to the effort of Scientology attorneys. With multiple harassment cases, we know that the Church of Scientology settled out of court, but we do not know they amount they paid victims.
The Church was in a constant contention with both local and state government regarding back taxes. Pinellas County would often threaten the Church that if back taxes were not paid, their downtown properties would be auctioned. Scientology has been brought to court by both the City of Clearwater and the IRS for failure to pay property taxes and involvement in taxable commercial activities, respectively. The Church was facing similar lawsuits all around the country, so Church leadership planned to become a federally recognized religion in order to avoid further prosecution. The Church accomplished this by having thousands of Scientologists file suit against both the IRS and individual executives of the IRS. All suits were dropped by memebers of Scientology once the IRS declared tax exemption for the Church.
According to a new report by The Tampa Bay Times, the Church of Scientology and related entities now own over $260 million of property in downtown Clearwater. The majority of this property now stands vacant, and given the Church’s tax exempt status, has limitless potential for development. Coincidentally or not, downtown Clearwater development began to stagnate upon the arrival of Scientology, and is now seriously lagging behind downtown St. Petersburg and Tampa. These factors, in contrast to decades prior, allows the Church to wield a significant degree of control over city government.
Scientology leader David Miscavige introduced a retail strategy to Clearwater’s Community Redevelopment Agency. The plan requires use of not just property owned by the Church, but also every property in a three block by four block area that encompasses all of downtown. The plan involves attracting a few major retail brands and then filling open spaces with handpicked businesses, similar to an outdoor mall. The proposal will give the Church total control over the downtown area in regards to development and management of properties.
The Church’s redevelopment plan has not yet been made public, nor will it be subject to a vote. It is still not entirely clear how much land in downtown Clearwater is owned by the Church of Scientology and its practitioners, due to the use of shell companies. Likewise, it is unclear exactly how much money the organization has. Though active membership has dropped to under 50,000 practitioners in the past few decades, the value of the organization has rose to at least $1.5 billion, according to the Church’s documents submitted to the IRS.
Most of the Church’s value lies in real estate in Clearwater. Although Scientology has a presence in dozens of countries around the world, nowhere is that presence more omniscient than Clearwater, Florida. Currently, downtown retail stands sparse and vacant, with the Church buying up as much land as it can, putting pressure on the few remaining businesses separate of Scientology. Contrary to previous decades, city commissioners have begun to entertain the idea of a Scientology controlled Clearwater. In the past, Scientology was a small yet vocal minority in Clearwater. Today the Church is arguably the most significant actor in the city, and their actions will continue to shape the history and development of the once vibrant beach town.
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