New Neighbor Is Not So Welcome
The Tampa Tribune 17.3.2006
By DAVE NICHOLSON <firstname.lastname@example.org>
PLANT CITY - Some community leaders are worried about the Church of Scientology's plan to open an outreach center in the heart of the city's historic business district.
The church, known for its nontraditional beliefs and celebrity members, is buying Frenchman's Market, 102 N. Collins St.. The 12,000-square-foot facility now houses antique and collectible dealers. The church plans to offer books, films and self-improvement courses there.
Scientologists operate a similar outreach center in Ybor City and a church in West Tampa. The organization's headquarters are in downtown Clearwater.
Plant City's rapid growth drew the church to the east Hillsborough County community.
"It's getting bigger and bigger," said Yamila Sene, director of public affairs for the Church of Scientology in Tampa.
Sene declined to reveal the proposed purchase price. A real estate listing shows an asking price of $1.6 million.
The owner, David Hawthorne, is widely credited with sparking the revival of downtown with large investments there in the mid-1990s. He confirmed he had contracts for the property but declined to discuss details.
Market employees on Thursday said they knew it was for sale but not that a buyer had been found.
News that Scientologists planned to move to Plant City distressed some community leaders, including the Rev. Ron Churchill, who mentioned his concerns to his congregation during a Wednesday night prayer meeting at First Baptist Church of Plant City.
"I see that as a cult; I don't see it as a religion," Churchill said Thursday. "I don't think it's a good thing for Plant City."
A member of First Baptist and longtime community leader, Myrle Henry, said, "I hate to see it happen."
Jerry Lofstrom, who owns a restaurant near Frenchman's Market, said although the church has the right to open a location downtown, he doesn't think it "will sit well with many people in downtown because of the reputation they bring with them."
Lofstrom said he was disappointed the market was not sold to an owner who would be "more suited" for the area. He predicted the Scientology center would damage people's perception of downtown Plant City.
Mayor John Dicks could not be reached for comment. Other city commissioners either could not be reached or had little comment.
Sene said concerns about the Scientologists' plan are unfounded. She asked residents to keep open minds.
"I don't know why they would be alarmed," she said. "We do an enormous amount of good work."
The Scientologists plan to remodel the facility, although there's no target date. Any work would keep the historic theme of the nearly century-old market, Sene said.
The deal is set to close next week.
The Church of Scientology, founded by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, aims for a "world without insanity, without criminals, without war, where the able can prosper and where Man is free to rise to greater heights," according to its Web site. Famous Scientologists include actors Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Kirstie Alley, and singer Lisa Marie Presley.
Followers call Scientology a practical religion with practical answers. Critics call it a cult that uses mind control.
Scientologists' Deal Has People Talking
The Tampa Tribune 8.4.2006
By JAN HOLLINGSWORTH <email@example.com>
PLANT CITY - The Church of Scientology has not sealed the deal to purchase Frenchman's Market, but the organization's presence already reverberates throughout the city.
On the streets, from the pulpits and in the shops and restaurants of the downtown business district, Plant City is abuzz with talk about the Scientologists coming to town.
Nonetheless, the sale of the Frenchman's Market at 102 N. Collins St. moved a step closer to fruition this week, when city officials issued necessary permits to Tim Martin of Heritage Construction for remodeling.
Closing on part of the transaction is scheduled for Monday, real estate agent Mac McGrath said.
The church, with international headquarters in Clearwater, has said it plans to open an outreach center there, offering books, films and self-improvement courses. It hasn't announced a target date for opening the center.
The deal hinged on obtaining permits to remodel the more than 80-year-old facility, which houses dozens of vendors selling antiques and collectibles. The church has said it is buying all but a small part of the 13,000-square-foot Frenchman's Market.
Owner David Hawthorne, a Plant City businessman who has invested heavily in the downtown historical district since the mid-1990s, said vendors will be given 30-days' notice to vacate.
Hawthorne said a portion of the building with an entrance on Drane Street hasn't been sold and will continue as a retail operation for antique and collectibles dealers.
"We expect to keep as many vendors as we can there," he said.
The prospect of the church coming to Plant City appears to be producing an opposition campaign.
Longtime resident Peter D'Alessio launched an e-mail assault following an encounter on a downtown sidewalk last week with a young woman who said she was conducting a survey. The aspiring actor-writer said he found the approach all too familiar.
The stranger asked what D'Alessio calls "self-help" questions: How do you define happiness? What aspect of your life would you like to improve?
"Because I had read [church founder L. Ron Hubbard's] "Dyanetics" and had been exposed to Scientologists, I knew the direction it was taking," D'Alessio said.
The direction, he said, was recruitment into a series of expensive workshops.
The church did not respond to the Tribune's repeated requests for comment this week.
D'Alessio said he was in California pursuing an acting career between 1998 and 2004 when the church opened an outreach program on Hollywood Boulevard.
"I saw every single building almost systematically becoming a Scientology facility," he said. "I knew immediately following my encounter [with the surveyor] that I could not sit back and not get involved in this."
D'Alessio said his e-mail campaign, which asks people to visit www.xenu.com, an anti-Scientology Web site that encourages communities to organize opposition to the church, has received dozens of responses from people in the community.
"I'm waiting to see who comes forward," he said. "I do believe it's going to snowball."
For the time being, D'Alessio's efforts primarily involve Internet blogs and an e-mail chain-mail campaign as he tries to marshal people and resources. He is hoping someone in the community will donate office space and a phone line to establish a base of operations.
"I don't care if they worship an onion," he said. "My point is they appeal to the better part of a human being and once you get in, they don't let you out. It's all about money and power."
He concedes there's probably little that can be done to stop the Scientologists, but he wants to try.
At First Baptist Church of Plant City, the Rev. Ron Churchill has shared his concerns with his congregation about what he has called a cult. Literature about Scientology has been distributed to church members.
Critics claim Scientologists use mind control and brain-washing techniques, but a church spokeswoman said recently that fears of Scientology were unfounded.
Sign Of The Times
The Tampa Tribune 8.4.2006
Plant City reporters routinely have interviewed downtown merchants and their employees through the years on a variety of subjects, from business issues to revitalization efforts. But when a Tampa Tribune reporter recently spoke to a vendor about the impending sale of Frenchman's Market to the Church of Scientology, an employee of the building's owner, Hawthorne Properties, abruptly intervened and asked the reporter to terminate the conversation.
This sign, posted the following day on a bulletin board in an employee lunchroom at Frenchman's Market, speaks to heightened sensitivities in the community:
"Attention Vendors: If you feel you MUST speak with the media or give surveys to total strangers, then you must take your conversations outside of the premises. Gossip, surveys, cameras and media personnel do not benefit our business. We all should try to discourage rumors and any negative action toward our store. Thanks for your cooperation."
David Hawthorne, owner of Frenchman's Market, declined comment on the new policy.
The Tampa Tribune 14.4.2006
Church Will Improve Area
Relying on descriptions of "Dianetics" and Scientology from people who know nothing about us, The Tampa Tribune does a disservice to the citizens of Plant City with its coverage on our purchase of a building there for a new Life Improvement Center (Plant City, March 17 and April 8). The reporter could not even properly spell "Dianetics," the name of L. Ron Hubbard's best-selling book about the mind and spirit.
"Dianetics" was the forerunner of Scientology, an applied religious philosophy which offers practical ways that persons of any religious belief can use to strengthen families and create a better future for our children and the world we live in. We respect the religious beliefs of others.
In our center we will provide information and courses on "Dianetics" and Scientology, as well as our non-religious social betterment programs. We will work with all those who want help to improve themselves, their families and their community.
Since moving to West Tampa in 2003 and restoring the historical Andres Diaz cigar factory as the home of our church, the church and its parishioners have contributed hundreds of thousands of hours in community activities to create a better, happier environment. West Tampa is in the midst of a virtual rebirth. The crime rate has declined by 30 percent and the standard of living is on the rise. We bring that record to Plant City, where residents can expect the same dedication from Scientologists.
Our goals are similar to those of most people of goodwill. As stated by our founder, L. Ron Hubbard, "A civilization without insanity, without criminals and without war, where the able can prosper and honest beings can have rights, and where man is free to rise to greater heights, are the aims of Scientology."
When we open our doors, we hope you will stop by. We look forward to being your neighbors in this special community.