Ruth: Even Winter the dolphin is persona non grata to Scientology

Published January 8 2015

Like a grumpy neighbor, Scientology is there.

Perhaps it might be a good idea to remind the church's leadership over at its Fort Harrison Avenue bunker that it sits in the city of Clearwater, not L. Ron Hubbardberry.

There are many corporations and organizations around the country that dominate their hometown's social, political and economic life. That is certainly true of Clearwater, where since the 1970s the Church of Scientology has gobbled up real estate at a Pac-Man-like clip, to the point where today the E-meter ministers have accumulated about $184 million in property, with roughly 76 percent of the land enjoying tax exempt status.

Still there are residents of the city who would simply like to enjoy the charms of the city not associated with the often secretive and thin-skinned disciples of Dianetics.

It was just a few short years ago that Clearwater stumbled onto a gold mine called Winter the dolphin, the tail-finless marine mammal who captured the nation's imagination when the modest Clearwater Marine Aquarium rescued her. Two major motion pictures followed and with that came a surge in tourists eager to catch a glimpse of the Taylor Swift of marine life.

In order to accommodate the influx of visitors, Clearwater's city leaders have proposed the construction of a new $68 million aquarium in the middle of downtown on the site currently occupied by City Hall. And voters also agreed to move forward with the project.

This apparently has annoyed the Scientologists who, as Tampa Bay Times reporters Mike Brassfield and Tony Marrero noted, have been working behind the scenes to sink the aquarium deal. City officials and several county commissioners have a very clear sense, after private discussions with Scientology apostles, that the organization would prefer the proposed aquarium location would be better suited to retail and commercial space catering to their affluent out-of-town parishioners.

In other cities, big corporations and/or high-profile organizations make an effort to be good citizens, contributing to the lifeblood of the community. It's good public relations. It's a nice gesture of civic involvement for the greater good.

But not in Clearwater.

The proposed aquarium effort offered the Scientologists a golden opportunity to be part of a civic project designed to benefit everyone in the community. It presented an ideal moment for the organization to demonstrate it cared about the larger welfare of the city above and beyond its own vested interests.

Instead, Scientology appears to have defaulted to plotting behind the scenes in a murky campaign to scotch the aquarium project.

More pointedly — splish, splash — once again Clearwater is enduring Scientology's myopic wrath.

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