A group of high-ranking Scientologists, concerned the church's Tampa facilities aren't up to snuff, is investing more than $2.5-million to buy a second cigar factory in West Tampa and to lease and renovate a two-story building on one of the hottest corners in Ybor City.
The church's three properties, staffed by nearly 100 people, will be the base for Scientology's most aggressive appeal for members to the Tampa Bay community.
This "dissemination" campaign, primarily focused on Tampa, often comes in the form of an invitation to take a personality or aptitude test. It will be bolstered by television advertising and taking to the street to spread the word.
The remarkable growth spurt for the Church of Scientology in Tampa began this spring with the grand opening of the newly renovated Andres Diaz building, a former cigar factory at 3102 N Habana Ave., in West Tampa. It was purchased last year for $1.2-million.
The church then moved to acquire a smaller cigar factory next door, for use as a community center. Now under lease, the church plans to buy the building in September for $425,000. The church spent $500,000 renovating this second cigar factory and its newly opened Life Improvement Center in a leased brick building on Eighth Avenue, in the heart of the Ybor entertainment district. Well-dressed staff members fan out in the crowded streets nightly to offer free "Scientometric Testing."
In the coming months, the Tampa Bay region could be dotted with as many as 10 smaller missions that will act as recruitment spokes of the Tampa church.
"We want to make ourselves more known," said Wayne Fuller, a Scientologist for 31 years and executive director of the Tampa church.
Fuller is one of an elite group of Scientologists who have completed the highest levels of Scientology training, called OT ambassadors. The OT ambassadors living in the Clearwater area had talked for years about upgrading the Tampa church, he said.
"We never had a facility that was up to the standards we'd want to have anyone in," Fuller said.
Church leaders finally decided they had a responsibility to make it happen. "We said, "That's it, it's time to actually do,' " Fuller said.
Clearwater Scientologists played a key role. Fuller, the Tampa church's executive director, Louise Cournoyer, who runs the community center in the recently opened second cigar factory, and Peggy Guigon, who runs the Life Improvement Center in Ybor, all commute to the Tampa church from Clearwater.
Two other factors spurred the growth spurt, said church spokesman Ben Shaw. First was pressure from international church executives in Los Angeles, and the second was that the growing base of parishioners in Tampa Bay had reached a "critical mass."
The church estimates it has 12,000 members in the Tampa Bay area; 5,000 in Tampa. Fuller said about 800 of the Tampa parishioners are active members, who are taking courses or participating in church services.
Although the church's major Tampa Bay presence is in Clearwater, the Tampa church acts as the central facility for those who live in the Tampa Bay area, Shaw said. Clearwater is home to Flag, a mecca for Scientologists who come there from around the world to receive the highest levels of Scientology training.
Local dissemination has never been a priority for Flag, Shaw said. At the Tampa church, it is.
There, personality tests, a popular tool used by the church to introduce Scientology to the uninitiated, are showing up on windshields at hockey games. Cards inviting residents to Scientology Sunday services can be found on countertops of diners and delis around town. Newspaper advertisements tout the benefits of the church's "purification rundowns."
What's more, the publishers of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard's book Dianetics have begun making an area push with television ads and a campaign to place Dianetics books in prominent displays at local large-chain bookstores, Shaw said.
At the Life Improvement Center in Ybor, newcomers are greeted by a row of desks topped with clocks. Guests are encouraged to take timed aptitude and intelligence tests, as well as a personality test. Staffers there, as well as at the facilities elsewhere in Tampa, score the tests and recommend courses, books and services to address "problem areas."
There are also rooms for courses, and in West Tampa, for one-on-one Scientology counseling called auditing.
A team of some 200 field staff members of the church also spreads the word about Scientology at flea markets and other events throughout the region. Field staff members are not employees of the church, but make commissions on what the people they bring to the church spend on materials, courses and services. Some make a living out of it.
The Tampa church also plans to add another 20 to 30 employees. The 93 employees of the church are paid based on a percentage of what the church collects in fees for services during a given week. General, full-time staffers typically earn about $200 per week, Fuller said. Unlike employees at Clearwater's Flag, called Sea Org members, Tampa staffers pay for their own living arrangements.
The church has also begun reaching out to its neighbors in West Tampa. During walks around the predominantly Hispanic West Tampa neighborhood, church spokeswoman Ana Tirabassi said she was told by many that they would like help learning English. So the church offers English as a Second Language courses on Monday and Tuesday nights in its community center.
"We want to be part of the community," Tirabassi said.