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Scientology's Presence In Clearwater, Fla.


In Clearwater, Fla., there's been a quiet series of land purchases over the last three years, $103 million worth made by the Church of Scientology and its parishioners - a doubling of the church's footprint near its international headquarters. That's the findings of a story in the Tampa Bay Times that's headlined clear takeover. Tracey McManus is a Scientology reporter for the paper, and she joins us now. Welcome.

TRACEY MCMANUS: Hi, Lulu. Thank you for having us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Explain to me why the paper has a Scientology reporter. I mean, how big is the Church of Scientology where you are?

MCMANUS: Yeah, that's a good question. I think it's comparable to say it's kind of, like, if there were to be a Vatican reporter in Vatican City. We believe it's important to shed light on a powerful institution that's very controversial and plays a big role in our community.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell me about these land purchases. Can you give me a sense of the scale and how they have made this happen with the relatively little fanfare over the years?

MCMANUS: It kind of started in early 2017. We reported at that time that a handful of limited liability companies bought about six downtown properties, and Scientology leader David Miscavige had presented a retail plan to two city staff officials. And he was going to build an entertainment complex with Tom Cruise. And he was going to recruit high-end retail to some of the empty storefronts because downtown Clearwater's pretty depressed. So we kept our eye on the downtown purchases. Once we dug into the data and pulled records, we found that LLCs tied to the Church of Scientology had bought about 100 properties. And the properties cover about 100 acres. And it's all surrounding the city's downtown waterfront.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Who are they buying from, and how much were they offering?

MCMANUS: Brokers representing these companies were approaching downtown property owners. Many of their properties weren't listed for sale. And our analysis found that these church officials were offering two, three, four times what the property appraiser said the properties were valued.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So clearly they wanted these properties a great deal. Why does this matter?

MCMANUS: Well, our reporting shows that Scientology has a big interest in preserving its downtown campus. Flag is what they call it, and it's the international spiritual headquarters of the church. And it's also basically the financial nucleus of the entire organization. There's parishioners that come here from all over the world to take courses in high level auditing that's not offered anywhere else. The other side of that is flag is run by the Sea Org, the Scientology's full-time workforce. These workers sign billion year contracts, are paid very little, work around the clock. And Scientology has an interest in keeping that insulated according to former executives that we've interviewed.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you mean billion year contracts?

MCMANUS: The reason Scientology has such an outsized influence is because of the cash and assets it has, which is estimated to be $3 billion. Part of the reason for that is because they have this Sea Org that works full time and is paid less than $50 a week. They keep their operations going.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's the type of servitude.

MCMANUS: Yes, exactly.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And I guess the larger concern is that this could really thwart the city's plans for redevelopment if the Scientologist organizations are going to have all this property that they're going to keep for their own purposes.

MCMANUS: Right - because the city officials have said that there's only so many factors they control. One of the factors they do control is the waterfront land that's protected by city charter, that they are in the middle of a $64 million plan right now to redesign and develop into a park with gardens and a concert venue. Businesses might see this city project and say, yeah, let me take a chance on downtown and open up a business. But now these LLCs tied to Scientology control the retail district. They have control over what businesses, if any, come in.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What is the view of the local community? I mean, do they view it as helpful for the community at large to have a major religious organization centered in their town or not?

MCMANUS: You know, Lulu, from my reporting, I've learned that there's a lot of mistrust and suspicion still in the community when it comes to Scientology because a lot of the residents here were living in the city when Scientology arrived in the '70s, and they remember the tactics Scientology used.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Just out of curiosity, when you say the tactics that they used in the '70s, what were those?

MCMANUS: Scientology arrived in downtown Clearwater in 1975. They came in under a fake name to buy the Fort Harrison Hotel, a historic hotel right in the center of downtown. And the mayor at the time, Gabe Cazares, really raised the alarm. He demanded to see their financials, their board of directors. He publicly asked why there were security cards with billy clubs and mace on the roof.

And in 1977, the FBI raided Scientology's headquarters in LA and D.C. And they uncovered hundreds of thousands of memos and documents. And inside those findings was a plan that Scientology operatives had created and written to establish area control. And the tactics they were using to establish area control included infiltration, spying, smearing enemies. It was a very turbulent time.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So the fact that the church is now buying up these properties through proxy organizations would maybe ring some alarm bells for the community because of what has happened in the past.

MCMANUS: Yeah, I think that the key here is the uncertainty. We don't know what they're planning to do with the properties. A lot of them are vacant lots, vacant buildings, empty storefronts. We don't know if they're just going to continue to squat on them - because they haven't done anything yet. They haven't submitted redevelopment plans. They haven't started construction - or are they going to redevelop them and bring businesses in and contribute to a vibrant downtown?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Tracey McManus, who reports on Scientology for the Tampa Bay Times, talking about the church's increased real estate footprint in Clearwater, Fla. Thank you very much.

MCMANUS: Thanks, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And we reached out to the Church of Scientology about the Tampa Bay Times report. They called it, quote, "little more than self-serving propaganda intended to give the appearance of objective reporting." They also pointed to the latest edition of their Freedom magazine for what they called an accurate portrayal of the church and its members in Clearwater.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA'S "RETURN TO FOREVER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.