CLEARWATER, Fla. (AP) — A newspaper report says the Church of Scientology and companies run by its members spent more than $100 million over the past three years buying up huge sections of downtown Clearwater.
The Tampa Bay Times reports that recent purchases doubled the combined real estate footprint of the church and its followers.
The newspaper said in a report published Sunday that it discovered the property purchases by reviewing more than 1,000 deeds and business records, then interviewed more than 90 people to reconstruct the circumstances surrounding the transactions.
Clearwater city leaders said they didn't know the full extent of the purchases until they were shown maps produced by the Times.
In an email to The Associated Press, church spokesman Ben Shaw said the paper has an "unending obsession" with Scientology and it has "torpedoed" the church's efforts to revitalize Clearwater's downtown. Shaw said that if the paper had been in Utah, "would the Times intrepid reporter have headlined that 'Mormons are buying up property in downtown Salt Lake City!'"
The church, its members, and companies under their control now own 185 properties that cover about 100 acres (about 40 hectares) in the center of the downtown area.
All told, the newspaper reported, 32 companies have bought 92 downtown properties since 2017. Of the $103 million spent, $99 million was paid in cash. Nearly all of the roughly two dozen people listed as operating the companies are Scientologists.
The church has about 10 million members worldwide. It says it has millions of members in 167 countries but has not provided a more specific number and its exact membership is unknown.
In 1975, Scientology creator L. Ron Hubbard bought a historic hotel in downtown Clearwater. Hubbard had a vision of making Clearwater a spiritual home for his Church of Scientology. Then, the downtown was dying. Today, it's an international Scientology mecca and a destination for elite members, including celebrity devotees like Tom Cruise and John Travolta who come from all over the world for the highest levels of the church's spiritual training.
According to its website, the church owns 22 buildings downtown, making it the area's largest property taxpayer.
The newspaper said 73 percent of the property in question is tax-exempt for religious purposes, but everything owned by parishioner-run companies is on the tax rolls.
The church and its members have bought properties in downtown throughout the years. In the 1990s, a Scientology magazine listed the church's goals for 2000. Make "Clearwater known as the first Scientology city in the world" was among them.
But the recent spate of purchases started as tensions grew between the church and the Clearwater City Council. Each had proposed downtown redevelopment project to revitalize the downtown. When the council interfered with a land deal that Scientology requested, the church stopped communicating with the city, the paper reported.
In response to the reporting, the church said there's nothing unnatural about Scientologists wanting to live in the same city as the organization's spiritual headquarters. The church's website says 2,300 church staff members work in Clearwater.
"The Church was unaware of the significant number of properties owned by Scientologists in the Clearwater area and are delighted you provided the information," the letter from Scientology attorney Gary Soter read.
The letter also criticized the paper for portraying its members as "mindless robots" and for having a "preconceived agenda to present every Scientology story in a false and unfavorable light."
All five city council members said they doubted the purchases were unrelated.
"The logical conclusion is Scientology must have some sort of a game plan in mind, but they're not public with what it is," City Council member Hoyt Hamilton said. "Typically, when people buy commercial real estate, they move forward with construction or redevelopment. That's not happening with almost any of these properties."
After reading the story, the city's mayor wondered whether the city's $64 million downtown waterfront redevelopment project was a wise expenditure.
City Council member Bob Cundiff said Scientology is "known for keeping their properties looking nice. Let's just hope they'll be good property owners."
"We as government officials and me as a council member and American, I'm not treading on any church's or any individual's right to buy or sell property," Cundiff said.
Clearwater's population is about 115,000 people. It's located in Pinellas County on the Gulf Coast, and includes Clearwater Beach, a barrier island that's a popular Spring Break destination.