Scientologists Plan New Training Center

Source: St. Petersburg Times
Date: March 20, 1991

The Church of Scientology said it plans to tear down the Gray Moss Inn and build a six-story, $42-million religious training center in its place.

The 170,000-square-foot building would be at 215 S Fort Harrison Ave., across the street from the Fort Harrison Hotel, which Scientologists use as an international retreat. Construction could start in May and last two years.

The glass-covered building would feature a covered walkway above Fort Harrison Avenue, and a 65-foot-tall atrium in a lobby.

A company called Graymoss Inc. bought the building last September for $1.65-million. Graymoss is affiliated with a California-based Scientology trust and will lease the building to the local church.

The announcement seemed to contradict the organization's assertion in 1989 that it wanted to consolidate its local buildings.

It was not immediately clear whether the Scientologists would pay taxes on the building. They have not paid taxes for several other local properties, claiming they are exempt because they are a church. Pinellas County is suing for more than $4.5-million in back taxes.

"This will be the biggest building in the whole world for the church that will be used for counseling and training," Scientology spokesman Richard Haworth said.

Scientology was founded by L. Ron Hubbard, a science fiction writer and author of Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. He and his followers said Scientology was a religion, but critics called it a cult or merely a money-making operation.

Scientologists believe they can overcome negative experiences through counseling sessions called "auditing," which generally involve the use of an E-meter, similar to a lie detector.

Scientologists from around the world come to Clearwater to stay in the organization's hotels, receive auditing at costs that can reach $600 an hour, and take classes on Scientology methods.

This new building essentially would double the organization's capacity, Haworth said. He said the new building alone could accommodate 2,000 parishioners and 1,000 staff members.

The church has about 700 staff members in Clearwater, and can accommodate 1,000 parishioners at a time, he said. It owns more than $20-million worth of property in the Clearwater area, including other hotels and classroom buildings.

Clearwater, he said, "is really the place where everyone who's in Scientology points to and wants to come to."

By tearing down the Gray Moss Inn and building anew, the organization would rid the city of an eyesore, brighten up downtown Clearwater and improve the local economy, Haworth said. The project would provide 500 jobs during the construction period.

But reaction among city officials was mixed.

Mayor Rita Garvey called the announcement "a great disappointment."

She agreed the Gray Moss Inn needs improvement, but said she was concerned that the property would be taken off the tax rolls.

"We appreciate the downtown beautification, but we'd also appreciate the revenue stream that such beautification would normally bring us," Commissioner Dick Fitzgerald said.

Commissioner Bill Nunamaker said he asked Haworth whether the group would put any of its property on the tax rolls.

"They indicated to me that they were going to put the Fort Harrison on the tax rolls. They said they want to pay their fair share of taxes."

Nunamaker said the building may improve the city's look. "Hopefully this will remove a blight from the downtown area," he said.

Paul Johnson, an attorney hired by the Scientologists, said he could not say whether the organization would ask for a tax exemption for the new building. But Haworth said the new building would be used for religious training and counseling, and Johnson said those activities were normally tax-exempt.

Scientologists appearing before the City Commission in 1989 were asked by Nunamaker whether they planned to expand downtown.

A Scientology planning official said the group planned to consolidate its buildings. An architect hired by the Scientologists said that in a meeting with his clients, "It came up about `Are you going to buy more land?' And the statement that was made to me was that they would prefer to redevelop the land they currently have, not to expand to other properties in the downtown area."

Haworth said Tuesday that the Scientologists didn't realize then that demand for their training was going to increase.

"We have been surprised as well. But pleasantly surprised," he said. "I call it a nice problem to have."

Now the Scientologists must seek various permits and approvals from the city of Clearwater. One sticky point may be parking. Haworth said he was not sure if the building plan had as much parking as the city would require.

Mike Sanders, chairman of the Clearwater Historic Preservation Board, said he would be sad to see the city lose the Gray Moss Inn - the oldest remaining downtown hotel.

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