The Church of Scientology and firms run by its members spent $103 million over the previous three years shopping for up huge sections of downtown Clearwater.
They now personal most business property on each block inside strolling distance of the waterfront, placing the secretive church firmly in charge of the realm’s future.
A lot of the gross sales haven’t beforehand been reported. The Tampa Bay Instances found them by reviewing greater than 1,000 deeds and enterprise data, then interviewed greater than 90 folks to reconstruct the circumstances surrounding the transactions.
Even metropolis leaders mentioned they didn’t know the complete extent of the purchases till they had been proven maps created by the Instances.
The church, its members and firms they management now personal 185 properties that cowl 101 acres within the heart of downtown.
Half the properties had been purchased since January 2017.
The land seize began as tensions grew between the church and the Clearwater Metropolis Council. Every had proposed main redevelopment tasks, designed to lure new enterprise into the empty storefronts that encompass the city-owned waterfront and the church’s non secular headquarters. Then the council interfered with a land deal that Scientology demanded for its plan. The church stopped speaking with town.
Virtually instantly, a decades-long trickle of purchases by church members became a flood.
Earlier than and after
Since 2017, the Church of Scientology and firms run by its members have purchased 92 properties across the heart of downtown. The church acquired three others in a land swap.
- The church
- Parishioner-run firms
- Native authorities
Almost the entire properties had been purchased via restricted legal responsibility firms, that are required to reveal their operators however not their homeowners. Though that association is commonplace in actual property, it makes it not possible to know whether or not the properties are owned by the Scientologists who handle the businesses, the rich church or one other hidden celebration.
However firms managed by totally different parishioners purchased neighboring properties that create clear assemblages of land.
Scientology’s extraordinary affect over its members has been documented in authorities investigations and testimony from former parishioners all through its 65-year historical past. That has led defectors from the church and metropolis leaders to consider there may be little probability parishioners are making vital actual property offers round Scientology’s mecca with out the church’s involvement.
The church has shed no mild on its plans. Native Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw and worldwide spokeswoman Karin Pouw didn’t reply to repeated requests by the Instances for an interview with Scientology chief David Miscavige.
In response to detailed memos summarizing the reporting, the church criticized the Instances for portraying its members as “senseless robots” and for having a “preconceived agenda to current each Scientology story in a false and unfavorable mild.”
“There’s nothing unnatural about Scientologists eager to stay in the identical metropolis that homes the worldwide non secular headquarters of their church,” mentioned a letter signed by Scientology lawyer Gary Soter.
“The Church was unaware of the numerous variety of properties owned by Scientologists within the Clearwater space and are delighted you supplied the data,” the letter continued.
Requested immediately whether or not Scientology orchestrated or paid for any of the gross sales, the church didn’t reply.
The Instances additionally contacted representatives of all 32 firms it recognized that purchased downtown actual property over the previous three years. Most didn’t reply or declined to remark.
The few keen to reply questions mentioned Scientology has no affect on their actual property dealings.
“I don’t combine my private enterprise with different areas in my life,” mentioned Terri Novitsky, a Scientologist who manages an organization that purchased two workplace buildings on Chestnut Road in 2017.
In interviews, sellers mentioned a lot of the transactions unfolded the identical method. A dealer who was a Scientologist approached a downtown property proprietor. Made a suggestion. Paid in money.
Most of the properties weren’t available on the market. And half the gross sales had been for greater than double what the properties had been valued by the county property appraiser, the Instances discovered. In six circumstances, patrons paid quadruple the property’s worth.
A lot of the new homeowners have carried out little with their acquisitions. Block after block, vacant tons sit untouched, and storefronts stay empty: A former jewellery retailer. An empty Walgreens. A abandoned coin laundry.
All 5 Metropolis Council members mentioned they doubted the rash of purchases had been unrelated.
“The logical conclusion is Scientology should have some form of a sport plan in thoughts, however they’re not public with what it’s,” Metropolis Council member Hoyt Hamilton mentioned as he checked out a map of downtown’s new possession. “Usually, when folks purchase business actual property, they transfer ahead with development or redevelopment. That’s not taking place with virtually any of those properties.”
The town needs to show downtown right into a regional vacation spot for meals, drink and leisure. Longtime Metropolis Supervisor Invoice Horne mentioned he can’t inform whether or not the church needs the identical factor.
“Ever since I’ve been right here, and ever since I’ve handled Scientology officers, I’ve heard the leaders articulate that they wish to see a vibrant downtown,” Horne mentioned. “Nonetheless, it hasn’t all the time been clear to me as to only what does that really imply.”
Tom De Vocht, a former Scientology government who oversaw the church’s property in Clearwater from 1996 to 2001, mentioned he believes Scientology is responding to town’s efforts by making a buffer to maintain the general public away.
“They’ve bought one intention, and one intention solely,” De Vocht mentioned. “Purchase up as a lot property as they’ll for the church — whether or not they use it or not, whether or not they let it sit there and decay — so nobody else could be there.”
‘The primary Scientology metropolis’
Scientology’s survival will depend on the preservation of its headquarters in Clearwater.
Scientology has mentioned it has 10 million followers, however surveys and accounts from former members recommend there are not more than 30,000 worldwide. The church’s affect comes from the estimated $three billion in money and belongings it has collected from its followers.
Clearwater is the middle of that income stream. Scientologists from throughout the globe make pilgrimages to the campus, referred to as Flag. It’s designed not for recruiting new members however for internet hosting established followers. The campus collects tens of millions every week via fundraising and funds for costly programs and high-level spiritual counseling not supplied anyplace else. Guests are anticipated to remain in Scientology’s lodges and eat at personal church eating places.
Flag is run by the church’s full-time workforce, the Sea Org, whose members signal billion-year contracts and work across the clock. Defectors have mentioned they had been paid lower than $50 per week.
Flag is meant to be an insulated oasis. Non-Scientologists who get too shut are a risk to the operation, mentioned Mat Pesch, who spent 27 years within the Sea Org and labored as Flag’s treasury secretary earlier than defecting in 2005.
“It’s a enterprise,” Pesch mentioned. “The extra it’s remoted and doesn’t have people who find themselves non-Scientologists across the space, the higher.”
The church’s hostility towards the general public turned clear from its first days within the metropolis in fall 1975.
Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard had written about getting rid of governments and changing them with a Scientology-run society. He was overseeing the faith from aboard a ship to keep away from investigations into tax evasion and fraud when he chosen Clearwater as a non secular headquarters. It met his standards: It was situated in a heat local weather close to a world airport and had a lodge the Sea Org might flip right into a base.
Church officers used a straw company to purchase the historic Fort Harrison Resort and moved in below a faux identify. They posted guards wielding billy golf equipment and mace. Suspicion swirled. A couple of months later, the newcomers admitted they had been really Scientology.
By then, the church’s intelligence unit was already deploying an elaborate scheme to “set up space management” within the metropolis.
Inside church paperwork detailed missions that planted spies within the state lawyer’s workplace, the Chamber of Commerce and the Clearwater Solar newspaper. Operatives framed the mayor in a staged hit-and-run and unfold false rumors he was having an extramarital affair.
The church additionally focused the Inside Income Service, Division of Justice and scores of international governments. It put aside $10 million for secret actual property purchases in Clearwater.
In a letter to the Instances, the church denied it ever tried to take management of town.
After FBI raids uncovered the infiltrations, metropolis officers launched their very own investigations. The town and the church fought in court docket for years.
Finally, open tensions pale. Over the following 4 many years, the church step by step amassed 58 properties in Clearwater below its identify, 49 of them downtown. Seventy-three p.c of the property is tax-exempt for spiritual functions. (Every little thing owned by parishioner-run firms continues to be on the tax rolls.)
Within the ’90s, a Scientology journal listed the church’s targets for 2000. Amongst them: make “Clearwater referred to as the primary Scientology metropolis on the earth.”
A proposal with a catch
At the same time as Scientology’s footprint expanded, and close by Clearwater Seashore turned probably the most in style vacationer locations in the US, downtown companies struggled to remain open.
Metropolis leaders spent tens of tens of millions bettering streets, subsidizing residential tasks and hiring consultants. They began internet hosting live shows on the waterfront that now draw hundreds.
However on days with no occasions, downtown feels abandoned. Actual property places of work, vitamin retailers and vacant storefronts fill prime places that in a extra vibrant downtown would possibly maintain breweries, eating places and boutiques.
In 2016, metropolis consultants started planning what has develop into a $64 million effort to reinvigorate the waterfront referred to as Think about Clearwater. They envisioned condominium buildings with ground-floor shops, winding paths with views of the Intracoastal Waterway and a live performance venue that will draw guests from throughout the area.
In January and February 2017, because the council was making ready to approve the consultants’ idea, a handful of firms purchased six business properties downtown. They paid $26 million.
After the Instances reported the purchases, Miscavige acknowledged the properties had been purchased for a second revitalization technique — one devised by the church. In personal conferences with council members, the Scientology chief described a plan for high-end retailers, Cleveland Road facade renovations and an leisure complicated involving actor Tom Cruise, Scientology’s most well-known parishioner. The church promised to spend $55 million.
However his provide had a catch. He wished the council to cease making an attempt to purchase a vacant lot on which the church was additionally bidding.
The 1.four acre lot was throughout the road from Metropolis Corridor and adjoining to a 13-story Scientology spiritual retreat. It was owned by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
The church supplied $15 million for the parcel. As an alternative, the aquarium bought it to town in April 2017 for lots much less — $four.25 million. Miscavige lower off communication with town.
A string of purchases
A couple of weeks later, John Yarbrough bought the constructing the place he had run his electrical providers enterprise for 22 years.
The property wasn’t available on the market. However David Kerr, an area actual property agent and parishioner, walked in in the future with a suggestion. After negotiations, Kerr’s firm paid Yarbrough $1.1 million in money for the tons, then valued by Pinellas County at $331,000.
Yarbrough by no means discovered the customer’s id. “They had been very secretive,” he mentioned.
A couple of months after Yarbrough relocated, a brand new electrical firm moved into his previous constructing. This one is owned by a parishioner who had been featured on the church’s “Meet a Scientologist” video collection.
Brokers who’re Scientologists approached not less than 15 downtown homeowners about unlisted properties.
Wayne E. Lee ran his Auto Components Distributors enterprise on Park Road since 1982. Actual property agent Daphna Fischler, a Scientologist, referred to as and confirmed as much as the store a handful of occasions in mid-2018. Lee bought when Fischler upped her provide to $410,000 money for the constructing valued at $109,000 by the property appraiser.
Fischler wouldn’t disclose the customer.
However Lee assumed the church was concerned. He instructed Fischler that earlier than Scientology purchased the Fort Harrison Resort in 1975 he labored there as a busboy. “She mentioned, ‘Effectively, we’ll have to ask you down for dinner,’ ” he recalled.
All collectively, 32 firms purchased 92 downtown properties since 2017. Of the $103 million spent, $99 million was paid in money.
Almost the entire roughly two dozen folks listed as working the businesses are Scientologists. They’ve accomplished programs and non secular counseling that may value tens of hundreds of .
Some have donated tens of millions to the church. The household of Moises Agami, a developer whose firms purchased 20 storefronts and a parking zone final yr, has donated not less than $10 million.
Shahab and Catherine Emrani — who handle firms that bought 4 business buildings, retail area in a rental and vacant land — have given not less than $1.75 million to the church. This month, Shahab Emrani was elected to the Downtown Growth Board, which helps promote downtown. For the primary time, a majority of the board’s members shall be Scientologists.
The best variety of properties had been purchased by firms managed by both Israeli businessman Itzhak Zano or one other Scientologist who represents him. Though Zano will not be well-known in Clearwater, the businesses spent $16.7 million buying 26 business properties downtown. About $15.9 million was paid in money.
Zano didn’t reply to questions on what his plans for the properties. His lawyer, Louis Zaretsky, wrote in a letter to the Instances that Zano is a businessman with huge actual property holdings in Israel, Germany, Poland, New York and Florida who makes investments “based mostly on his perception that they’ll admire or in any other case contribute to his long-term targets.”
“Your characterization that his spiritual affiliations in some way management his enterprise actions is proof of non-public bias towards his faith,” Zaretsky wrote.
Among the parishioners have a historical past of engaged on Scientology’s behalf.
Fischler, an area actual property agent, negotiated not less than 10 of the downtown offers, in accordance with interviews with sellers. In 2002, she was listed as a world deputy of a committee tasked with disseminating Scientology doctrine. Fischler didn’t reply to telephone messages, a licensed letter or a notice left at her rental.
Brian Andrus controls firms that final yr purchased a marina on N Osceola Avenue and 6 close by properties, all bordering a redevelopment challenge on the metropolis’s public boat ramp. He owns Stonebridge Actual Property and served as president of the Florida Gulfcoast Business Affiliation of Realtors in 2017.
However within the ’70s, Andrus was named an unindicted co-conspirator in Scientology’s authorities espionage scheme, which despatched 11 Scientologists to federal jail.
Andrus helped perform a plan to cease a Scientologist who had spied on the federal authorities from turning himself in to the FBI. Based on court docket data, Andrus accompanied two guards as they handcuffed and gagged the person, dragged him right into a automobile and drove him to a hideout, the place he was held for a month earlier than escaping.
Andrus didn’t reply to an e mail, telephone message, a notice left at his workplace or a licensed letter. Reached at their rental, his spouse declined to remark.
The church attracts members via a theology of self enchancment and understanding. It teaches that increasing Scientology is essential to saving the world, then wields a system of totalitarian insurance policies to maintain parishioners in line.
Members need to reply to their “ethics officer” for any act of disloyalty to Scientology’s mission. Mike Rinder, who led the church’s intelligence arm earlier than defecting in 2007, mentioned that in the case of property round Flag, there’s no actual distinction between whether or not it’s owned by the church or a parishioner.
“Most religions have a fundamentalist wing,” Rinder mentioned. “There’s no such factor in Scientology. You’re a fundamentalist Scientologist, otherwise you’re not one in any respect.”
Disloyalty has life-changing penalties. The church requires followers to shun relations, mates and enterprise contacts who defy it. It has terrorized defectors with personal investigators, smear campaigns and relentless litigation.
Throughout non secular counseling, parishioners are interrogated about their deepest secrets and techniques, that are recorded in folders and saved indefinitely. Scientology has been accused of utilizing the data as blackmail.
“Any property owned by a Scientologist or linked to a Scientologist is owned by the church, as a result of the church owns its parishioners,” mentioned De Vocht, the previous government in command of actual property, who reported on to Miscavige.
In a letter, the church mentioned the Instances is misinterpreting Scientology coverage and that different religions additionally apply shunning. It mentioned data in parishioner folders is sacrosanct and claims of blackmail have “lengthy since been disproven.”
Former parishioners say the church has a historical past of interfering in Scientologists’ downtown enterprise.
Aaron Smith-Levin, a former Sea Org member, mentioned a church ethics officer in 1993 pressured Smith-Levin’s father-in-law to promote Scientology a downtown property it wished for growth.
One other Scientologist, Rick Argall, owned a constructing on downtown’s Backyard Avenue that housed six Scientologist-run companies, together with a chiropractic clinic he operated with a fellow church member. However after he forwarded an e mail vital of the group in 2012 to a different parishioner, the church started an excommunication course of that will have pressured his companion of 24 years to cease working with him and his tenants to maneuver out.
Argall left the church and was pressured to desert his enterprise of greater than 20 years. Involved he wouldn’t be capable to pay his mortgage, Argall mentioned he deeded the constructing, appraised at $780,000, again to the earlier proprietor. He walked away with nothing.
Visions for the longer term
It’s too quickly to say how the shift in possession will have an effect on downtown.
Andrus, the previous church operative, has damaged floor on a rental tower close to town’s boat ramp and filed plans for an additional housing complicated close by. Tal Ezra, a Scientologist who just lately purchased 4 parcels round an workplace the place he has run his gasoline administration firm since 2005, mentioned he’s contemplating workplace area and probably a retail store.
“I noticed a enterprise alternative,” Ezra mentioned. “Nobody from the church dictates to me what to purchase, what to promote, what to do.”
Not one of the different parishioners whose firms purchased property since 2017 responded to questions on their plans.
Proper now, not less than 30 companies owned by non-parishioners are renting from Scientologists. However Scientologist-controlled firms are additionally sitting on not less than 26 vacant tons and 31 empty storefronts and places of work.
Companies with out ties to the church are transferring into just a few of these. Agami, the developer whose household gave $10 million, leased a storefront to a non-Scientologist that has develop into a profitable restaurant since opening in 2017. Agami additionally signed two extra leases on the identical block with eating places owned by folks not related to the church. Each are speculated to open quickly.
However way more non-Scientologists are transferring out. Seven companies have left following latest purchases, and not less than three extra are leaving this yr, together with Clearwater Plumbing and Gulf Coast Marine. Each have been there for many years.
Wanting on the Instances’ map of the brand new possession, Metropolis Council member David Allbritton recalled a second from 2017 that now appears telling.
When town was contemplating shopping for the aquarium’s lot, Miscavige threatened to cease speaking till the 2020 election, when time period limits would pressure a lot of the council out of workplace. Then he would attempt once more, with new council members.
“He’s beginning to assemble properties,” Allbritton mentioned. “If the council in 2020 isn’t on board with doing one thing his method, he’s going to do it himself.”
Metropolis officers say their dedication to redeveloping the waterfront hasn’t modified. Assistant Metropolis Supervisor Michael Delk mentioned town’s precedence is popping the spectacular land it owns right into a group vacation spot, regardless of who owns the personal property round it. “That’s an element we don’t management,” Delk mentioned.
Along with a park and amphitheater, Think about Clearwater additionally requires a number of new tasks on the waterfront with residences and retail. Delk described the tasks — which require voter approval — as key to the plan’s success.
However even when the church isn’t in management, its presence can deter growth.
In summer time 2017, Mark Searcy, a longtime Clearwater actual property agent who will not be a Scientologist, assembled a 1-acre web site by getting the homeowners of three adjoining properties to comply with promote.
Searcy felt like he’d created a canvas for a dream lodge, rental and retail challenge: close to the bridge to Clearwater Seashore, no top restrictions, all below $5 million.
He promoted the positioning to about 75 hoteliers and builders throughout the nation.
All of them handed.
“The primary cause why builders didn’t need it was they didn’t wish to be close to the Church of Scientology,” Searcy mentioned.
Then Fischler referred to as with a purchaser.
Almost two years after the properties had been bought to an organization run by two Scientologists, no redevelopment plans have been submitted.
And Fischler continues to be making presents.
In 2018, Peter Lares bought a name from Fischler, asking if he’d promote the distinguished constructing within the heart of downtown that homes Emily’s Restaurant. Lares and his spouse, Emily, bought the diner inside a decade in the past. However they weren’t able to promote the constructing, which that they had owned for 27 years.
Lares declined once more when Fischler met him at a restaurant in Pinellas Park for lunch, and as soon as extra when she tried in Could. He’s nonetheless holding out.
“We’ve spent quite a lot of completely satisfied years right here,” Lares mentioned.
In summer time 2018, Fischler walked into Bob Lee’s Auto Restore on Park Road to make proprietor Dennis Bosi a suggestion. Bosi wasn’t .
He had dedicated to downtown in 1997. He took over Bob Lee’s Auto to proceed the enterprise’ legacy and served on the Downtown Growth Board for a decade.
However the promised downtown revival by no means got here. Over the previous two years, the properties surrounding the store have been bought to Scientologist-controlled firms.
Fischler approached Bosi once more in September. By then, he had discovered an auto storage he might purchase in Dunedin. Fischler supplied Bosi $1.four million, virtually thrice what the property was valued.
“I needed to decide,” Bosi mentioned. “Do I spend one other 10 years and see what occurs in downtown Clearwater?”
Bosi took the deal.
Extra on this matter
In regards to the evaluation
Instances reporters constructed a database of lots of of properties within the heart of Clearwater’s downtown.
Reporters analyzed hundreds of rows of knowledge and pulled greater than 1,000 data from the Pinellas County Property Appraiser, the Pinellas County Clerk of Courtroom and the Florida Division of Firms. The evaluation thought-about property throughout the common boundaries of Cedar Road to the north, Missouri Avenue to the east, Chestnut Road to the south and the Intracoastal Waterway to the west. The purpose was to seize the realm instantly surrounding each Scientology’s headquarters, Metropolis Corridor and the city-owned waterfront.
The evaluation didn’t embrace residential parcels besides in circumstances the place they had been purchased at the side of business property or vacant land. The Instances counted every parcel that was assigned a price by the property appraiser as a single property with 5 exceptions. In these circumstances, 4 or extra parcels bought collectively clearly comprised a single piece of actual property.
The Instances described gross sales as money transactions after they had been paid with out a mortgage filed in public data. The Instances used the date that transactions had been recorded in Clerk of Courtroom’s official report because the date of sale.
Connie Humburg, Tracey McManus
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