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A city divided over Scientology for nearly 40 years weighs a fresh start

Scientologists walk past the new Flag Building on their way to the Friday opening night of the church’s week of celebration.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

Scientologists walk past the new Flag Building on their way to the Friday opening night of the church’s week of celebration.

CLEARWATER — If Mayor George Cretekos could wave a magic wand, Clearwater would feel like Salt Lake City.

A decade ago, Cretekos attended a wedding there. He was apprehensive about visiting a city dominated by Mormons.

"But I found Mormons very friendly. They made me feel welcome. I didn't feel intimidated. I was glad that I was there," he said. "If I had one wish, it would be that when people come to Clearwater and they see the Church of Scientology, they will also feel welcome."

Scientology has not forged that good-neighbor image in Clearwater after 37 years of occupying prime space in the city's historic core, said Cretekos and other city and civic leaders. In recent months, the often-insular church acted as if it believed it was "above the law,'' Cretekos said, cutting down trees and erecting tents, huge signs and fencing without seeking city permits.

"It is a little troublesome that all this time has gone by and we still seem to be butting heads, and that shouldn't be," the mayor said. "These repeated disagreements, it doesn't help the church, it doesn't help the city, it doesn't help the community."

Against this backdrop, church leaders and thousands of Scientologists will gather downtown this afternoon to celebrate the opening of what the church has called the most important project in Scientology's 59-year history. The new "Flag Building'' is seven stories tall, covers a full city block and dominates the downtown skyline. Its dedication apparently will be a Scientologists-only event. That puzzles Cretekos and other government and civic leaders who said they expected to be invited.

Cretekos said if today's event goes as smoothly as the church's private gatherings Friday and Saturday, he will write Scientology leader David Miscavige in an attempt to reset relations. Many in the community would welcome a new era of engagement, several leaders said last week. City Council member Bill Jonson said he still hears negative comments about the church, but many have told him they think it's time to move on.

"I don't know if it's acceptance, but it's, 'We've got other things that are important — transportation, economic development, parks, neighborhoods, making sure that we are a viable community in the future,' " Jonson said.

The church didn't respond to a request for comment.

Longtime Clearwater resident Jim Coats, who retired as Pinellas County sheriff in 2011, has had a working relationship with the church since the 1990s, when he was chief deputy. He described it as cordial and respectful.

The church asked him to speak at a church-sponsored anti-drug rally. He did. In subsequent years, he spoke at other church-staged events; toured the church-sponsored drug treatment facility in Clearwater, Narconon; attended church events with his wife, Cat, and wrote articles for church publications — without being paid.

It all went smoothly, Coats said, even when church staffers editing a draft of one of his articles suggested he include language that indicated he supported the beliefs of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.

He refused. The editor didn't push back, Coats said.

He has heard talk in recent weeks about the apparent tension between the church and City Hall.

"It seems to me they (the church) would be more inclined to have a non-adversarial relationship,'' Coats said, adding that no church official ever asked him for advice on how to get better traction in the community and he never offered any.

The church did make a recent public relations push. At an October meeting of the Clearwater Neighborhoods Coalition, church spokeswoman Pat Harney said the church pays more than $2 million each year in property and hotel bed taxes. It owns nearly 70 parcels in Pinellas County, mostly in Clearwater, valued by the county property appraiser at more than $139 million — about 80 percent of it exempt from taxation, according to county records.

Harney also said that Scientologists are neighbors, employees and active in the community. "We share the same connection … That is caring about Clearwater and what happens to it. We are citizens of Clearwater."

Longtime Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger agrees. He said he has seen a church that is community-focused and charitable, with members who are active volunteers.

"People I talk to don't have any issues with them,'' he said. That includes civic leaders, government workers, service clubs and people involved in the social efforts he and his wife, Kay, oversee and support.

He added that church staffer Lisa Mansell has been a productive member of the north county council of the Pinellas County Juvenile Welfare Board, where he is a board member.

"People need to avoid stereotypes,'' he said. "If you think there are some kind of problems, come to the table and talk about it.''

Cretekos agrees the church has done good things in the community. And as one of the city's largest taxpayers, it plays an important economic role.

All the more reason for a new path to be blazed, he said.

Staff writer Thomas C. Tobin contributed to this report. Joe Childs can be reached at jchilds@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8328. Charlie Frago can be reached at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4159.

A city divided over Scientology for nearly 40 years weighs a fresh start 11/16/13 [Last modified: Sunday, November 17, 2013 1:04pm]
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