Scientologists Harm Business, Merchants Say

Source: St. Petersburg Times
Date: October 9, 1989

There was a time when the shopping area in Clearwater was Cleveland Street.

Downtown's "Main Street" was lined with big department stores and bustling restaurants, and the sidewalks were filled with people.

Today, most of the department stores are long gone from Cleveland Street. The businesses that remain are a mix of small clothing stores, printing shops, professional offices and jewelry stores.

Part of that mix is Scientology.

The Church of Scientology has had a strong presence in downtown Clearwater since it secretly bought the old Fort Harrison Hotel at 210 N Fort Harrison Ave. in 1975, shocking city residents.

Members say Scientology is a religion, and say they help the city. Opponents call it a cult and a money-making organization. The Scientologists attempted to frame former Mayor Gabe Cazares with a hit-and-run accident in 1976 and have stirred controversy off and on since their arrival.

The debate was most recently revived this summer when the City Commission approved a site plan for a $3.5-million building the Scientologists plan to build at the site of the Sandcastle Motel, 200 N Osceola Ave.

Today a walk down a portion of western Cleveland Street shows that Scientology is now an integral part of the old "Main Street."

Walk down the 400 block of Cleveland Street.

You will see a limestone building with an imposing facade. In the window there is a picture of a lion and a sign that says "Hubbard College of Improvement," named after Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Inside, Scientology training is administered in several languages.

Uniformed Scientologists are seen most hours of the day milling around this building and others owned by the organization. Some businesses owners say the militaristic white or navy uniforms call attention to the Scientologists and discourage non-Scientologists from shopping downtown.

Nearby is Bernstein, McCaffrey & Lee, a business that handles investments in rare coins and that operates a currency exchange. Many people who take local Scientology courses are visitors from Europe. But Luz Schiaffino, the business' public relations director, said she does not know how many of their customers are Scientologists.

Cross the street.

Peeking in a window, you will see fanciful - and expensive - works of art, inspired by the science fiction writings of Hubbard.

Go to the next block.

You'll be standing in front of a building with tall Roman columns that used to be the Bank of Clearwater. Now the only sign on the front is a blue placard that says `Clearwater Building." The building is owned by the Church of Scientology, and it houses Scientology classrooms and offices.

Saunter down the sidewalk.

You'll see the Downtown Marketplace. Window shopping here will provide an eyeful of Hubbard's books.

Inside, there's a small boutique that features clothing and other items sold on consignment. There also is a display of old "pulp" magazines that feature Hubbard short stories with titles like "The King Slayer" and "Blood on His Spurs." There will probably be a few copies of The National Bulletin, a newspaper read mostly by Scientologists, but now attempting a wider circulation.

Cross the street and go to the next block.

You'll find the "Tone 40 Building" at 639 Cleveland St. Tone 40 is a term used in Scientology. The building houses a print shop and a hair salon owned by Scientologists.

To Scientologists who run such businesses, all this is evidence that Scientology is a plus for downtown Clearwater.

"What I see is the whole downtown revitalizing itself," said Marlo Kimmel, whose business, A to B Printing, is in the Tone 40 Building. "But not because of what the city is doing. It's because of the people who care about the downtown.

"A lot of people who care about the downtown are Scientologists," she said.

"I don't think downtown suffers because of Scientologists," said Nicholas Anderson, editor of the National Bulletin, based in the same building as Downtown Marketplace. "I think if anything it does better."

But some shoppers shun downtown because they feel uncomfortable around the Scientologists, according to some other business owners.

"I've had customers say that they will not come downtown because of Scientology. I'm not trying to create anything, that's just a fact," said Terry Flowers, who is president of the Downtown Clearwater Association and who co-owns the Happy Balloon Co. at 626 Cleveland St.

"People are scared to come downtown," said Norris Smith, who, with his brothers, Jerry and Kenny, owns K.K. Smith & Sons Jewelers, 409 Cleveland St.

The Smiths blame much of downtown's problems on city government, which they said has sat idly while businesses died from lack of parking and other problems.

But they also believe the Scientologists have made the downtown a less attractive place for people to shop.

"They have definitely hurt downtown," Kenny Smith said. "There's no question about it. There's no way they can deny it."

However, some non-Scientologists said their business isn't hurt by Scientology.

At Speyer Office & School Supplies, 525 Cleveland St., owner H.C. Speyer said he depends on Scientologists.

"I don't think very many businesses can stay down here without their business. We couldn't."

Most people interviewed agreed that the number of businesses owned by Scientologists seems to have increased in recent years.

But Jamie Gourgon, a spokeswoman for the Church of Scientology, said the organization has no program of encouraging its members to start downtown businesses.

She said the businesses are not run by the Church of Scientology, but by individual members.

Jerry Sternstein, who has been Clearwater's economic development director for about three months, said he hasn't seen anything to indicate the Scientologists are hurting businesses on Cleveland Street or elsewhere.

Instead, he pointed out a $15-million building called Clearwater Tower that is about to go up near the corner of Cleveland Street and Garden Avenue.

Another is being considered for a lot a block north of Cleveland Street, between Fort Harrison and Osceola avenues.

Sternstein spends a lot of time talking to developers to try to encourage them to locate downtown. He said none has told him the Scientologists would keep them away.