The Church of Scientology took control of Clearwater, Florida in the blink of an eye – shelling out $103million to sweep up 101 sweeping acres of the city’s waterfront downtown area over the course of three years.
The controversial church first landed in Clearwater in 1975 with one hotel property to its name, but the organization had elaborate plans to spread its tentacles to ensnare the entire downtown area.
In just three years, starting with a frantic land grab in January 2017, Scientology doubled its footprint in the city.
Following a fallout with the City Council, Scientologists started to buy downtown property – $103million worth to be exact – at an unprecedented rate and now the church and its members own 185 properties that cover 101 acres of downtown.
The church now completely controls the heart of the city, save for a few condominium tower and buildings owned by the government, the Tampa Bay Times discovered after reviewing 1,000 deeds and business records, shocking city leaders and residents at the scope of the church’s dominance.
The Church of Scientology doubled its footprint in Clearwater, Florida in a matter of just three years after shelling out $103million to snatch up 185 properties that cover 101 acres of the city’s downtown area. Clearwater is home to one of the Church’s most important bases, a campus called Flag (above), which Scientologists across the globe make pilgrimages to
Before: This map shows the extent of Scientology owned property in downtown Clearwater Florida in 2016
By 2019 the Church had greatly expanded, doubling its footprint and covering 101 acres of land
And Clearwater is home to one of the Church’s most important bases, a campus called Flag, which established Scientologists from across the globe make pilgrimages to. Flag is run by the church’s notorious full-time workforce, the Sea Org, whose members sign billion-year contracts.
Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard called Clearwater its spiritual headquarters.
The Church’s celebrity members Tom Cruise and John Travolta are known to have estates near Clearwater as well.
But just how has the church expanded at such an alarming rate? The reason lies in rising tensions between the church and the Clearwater City Council.
Scientology proposed a major redevelopment project meant to lure in new business to the empty stores in the city’s waterfront area and near the church’s headquarters, but the council interfered, botching plans for a land deal that the church wanted for its expansion plan.
Ever since then the church stopped communicating with the city, and the rapid land grab commenced.
Scientologists began to purchase properties through limited liability companies which are required by law to disclose their operators but not their owners. In this way Scientologists were able to buy properties without companies knowing they were behind it.
Oddly enough, half of those properties weren’t on sale and half of the sales went for more than double the property’s actual value. In six cases, buyers made four times the property’s value deemed by the county property appraiser.
But many of those purchased properties remain shuttered or in disuse. Walking through Clearwater people will find vacant lots, an empty former jewelry store, an dead laundromat and an abandoned Walgreens.
The Church has not revealed any motive behind their domination of downtown Clearwater. The Church is yet to reply to DailyMail.com’s request for comment.
Scientology boasts 10million followers, but surveys and accounts from former members suggest there are no more than 30,000 worldwide. It’s not clear how many followers are based in Clearwater.
The church’s influence comes from its massive wealth, estimated around $3billion in cash and assets, collected from devoted followers.
The Church did however slam the Times for its reporting for having a ‘preconceived agenda to present every Scientology story in a false and unfavorable light.’
‘There is nothing unnatural about Scientologists wanting to live in the same city that houses the international spiritual headquarters of their church,’ a letter signed by Scientology attorney Gary Soter to the Times said.
Scientology boasts 10million followers, but surveys and accounts from former members suggest there are no more than 30,000 worldwide. Scientology hasn’t answered directly why they’ve taken over the Clearwater area, but skeptics say it’s to keep the public away. Scientology leader David Miscavige pictured above
‘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 added.
The Church didn’t comment on whether Scientology orchestrated or paid for any of the real estate sales.
Though most of the representatives of the 32 companies who purchased the downtown real estate in the past few years, few gave comment on their purchase and claimed Scientology wasn’t a factor in the land buy.
‘I don’t mix my personal business with other areas in my life,’ Terri Novitsky, a Scientologist who manages a company that bought two office buildings on Chestnut Street in 2017, said.
The few that chose to speak on selling their property said they were approached by a Scientologist who made offers and paid in cash.
City officials are suspicious that the church could be planning to do something with the land they now posses.
The Church’s celebrity members Tom Cruise and John Travolta are known to have estates in Clearwater not far from the Scientology headquarters
‘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.’
‘Ever since I’ve been here, and ever since I’ve dealt with Scientology officials, I have heard the leaders articulate that they want to see a vibrant downtown,,’ Longtime City Manager Bill Horne, who wanted to turn downtown into a mall and entertainment center, said. ‘However, it hasn’t always been clear to me as to just what does that actually mean.’
Critics of the church say that the Scientology bought the downtown properties to keep the public at bay.
‘They’ve got one intention, and one intention only. Buy up as much property as they can for the church — whether they use it or not, whether they let it sit there and rot — so no one else can be there,’ Tom De Vocht, a former Scientology executive who oversaw the church’s property in Clearwater from 1996 to 2001, said.