CLEARWATER — When Ted Reinhard launched Cult City Tours in February, he said his goal was to demystify the presence of the Church of Scientology in downtown by laughing at it.
The 90-minute walking tour around church landmarks eases any fears with his sarcastic reading of Scientology teachings, he said, but the route ends up exposing visitors to a fledgling district of bars and restaurants they may have never known about.
“If you come downtown and have dinner or drinks, you’re not supporting Scientology, you’re supporting independent business men and women trying to make a living,” Reinhard, 48, said during a Feb. 19 tour as the group crossed Cleveland Street.
Some were already skeptical of this new weekly occurrence downtown.
Leading his groups of 10, Reinhard, who’s never been in the church, wears a faux Navy jacket and hat, a play on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard’s exaggerated military record.
“We’re not a cult city, that’s a misrepresentation,” Mayor Frank Hibbard said. “It creates a circus-type atmosphere that isn’t really beneficial to restaurants serving more lunches and dinners.”
The growing tension over Cult City Tours peaked in the lead up to a special event on Saturday, when seven well-known Scientology defectors, who have spoken against alleged abuses in the church, guest hosted a tour of 90 people.
In the days before Saturday’s event, while Cult City Tours was trying to book a venue for an after-party, a Scientology representative contacted multiple business owners. After Reinhard said two businesses then declined to host the party, he lashed out by writing one-star reviews on Google that falsely accused them of catering only to Scientologists — a label that can be toxic given the community’s suspicion of the church.
Reinhard said he got the idea for the business last year, when Clearwater City Council member Mark Bunker suggested the city should investigate Scientology tourism opportunities instead of pretending it isn’t there.
After Cult City Tours launched on Feb. 2, Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw called it “bigoted propaganda” in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times.
Bunker said he doesn’t agree with Reinhard’s mocking tone, like how he recites the story of Xenu, a teaching that Scientologists learn only after years of spiritual counseling and paying hundreds of thousands of dollars. But Bunker said people taking Cult City Tours who previously avoided downtown are now discovering its bars and restaurants.
“That was the whole point of the tour, that it would get people over their fear of being in front of Scientology security cameras and that it’s okay, just come down and have fun,” Bunker said.
On Thursday, Aaron Smith-Levin, a Scientology defector who organized Saturday’s Cult City Tours special event, visited Pour Yours wine bar on Cleveland Street to ask the owner about hosting the after-party.
Pour Yours owner Kristian Culaj said he initially agreed. Culaj confirmed that Amber Skjelset, manager of Scientology’s Information Center on Cleveland Street, also visited his bar the same day.
Culaj said Skjelset brought a copy of a 21-year-old court injunction against Bunker, who in 2000 was part of a group of church critics ordered by a judge not to go within 10 feet of parishioners. Earlier this month, Bunker promoted on Twitter that he would be attending the March 13 special tour.
Culaj said Skjelset “didn’t mention anything about the event” when she visited his bar. He also does not remember the details of their conversation or what Skjelset said about the injunction.
But on the same day as Skjelset’s visit to Pour Yours, Scientology corporate secretary Glen Stilo made a request to the city for all public records related to Cult City Tours and 10 individuals, including Bunker, Reinhard and Smith-Levin.
Culaj said the following day he canceled Smith-Levin’s reservation for Saturday, because he did not have the staff or space to handle a crowd of nearly 100.
“That’s when someone went on Google reviews and said this place only welcomes Scientologists. It’s not true,” said Culaj, who is not a member of the church.
Shaw, the Scientology spokesman, declined to answer why Skjelset brought the injunction to Pour Yours or whether other representatives of the church contacted downtown businesses regarding Cult City Tours.
Instead, in a statement, Shaw said the “desire to create chaos in Clearwater, and in the downtown in particular, is not something new for this clan.”
The negative reviews Reinhard left on Google falsely accuse Pour Yours and BlackBrick Tavern, which Reinhard also said declined to host his after-party, of only welcoming Scientologists. But a week later, he has not removed them.
BlackBrick co-owner Jason Floyd declined to comment.
“They say they don’t want to be known as cult city, but when Scientology puts the arm on them, they are okay with it?” Reinhold said, confirming he wrote the reviews under travelnted1.
Lina Teixeira, government liaison for the Downtown Clearwater Merchants Association, said Reinhard’s behavior has been disheartening, because merchants have tried to change a perception that downtown has nothing except Scientology.
The city will soon break ground on a $64 million renovation of the downtown waterfront. Last year, merchants rebranded part of Cleveland Street as “The District” to promote expanded outdoor seating and other efforts to survive the coronavirus pandemic.
“We changed the narrative ... and then this happens,” Teixiera, who is not a member of Scientology, said of the tour. “The merchants feel like once again they are collateral damage.”
Last week was not the first time Reinhard lashed out at businesses. Restoration Cafe owner Blake Ferrell said that in late February, an employee closed their door on North Fort Harrison Avenue so the noise of Reinhard’s passing tour wouldn’t disturb customers.
Reinhard took to Facebook in a now-deleted post and stated that Restoration Cafe’s “preferred client base profits from human trafficking,” referring to allegations against Scientology of abuse.
“We’re working really hard to make downtown Clearwater a great place to be and enjoy, and I don’t think this is productive to that end,” said Ferrell, a Christian pastor.
Here to stay
Bunker said he disagrees with Reinhard’s trashing of businesses, and has told him so.
Before Cult City Tours, Reinhard said he created travel programs overseas. He became a full-time social studies teacher for Pinellas County Schools in 2017.
The school board charged Reinhard with misconduct in 2018 after he wrote students passes to the journalism room that stated “Fake News HQ” and “Can’t prove it? Fake it!” He received a “coaching memo” that year after he said any student who disrupted the educational process to participate in a vigil for the Parkland school massacre is “no longer an activist, you’re a terrorist.”
Pinellas County Schools did not renew Reinhard’s contract n 2019 but retained him as a substitute, according to public information officer Isabel Mascareñas.
Reinhard said he stands by the comments he made to students as well as the way he’s run the tours downtown. He said he doesn’t intend to make any changes.
The name of his business, which the mayor calls “a misrepresentation” for example?
“It’s called marketing,” Reinhard said. “All of the millions they spent on downtown, I’m a clown in a costume with a $6 domain name and I’m bringing the city down?”
Downtown Pizza Sports Bar and Grill owner Dale Robinson said Skjelset, the Scientology information manager, also reached out to him prior to Saturday’s special tour. But he said she didn’t elaborate beyond informing him it was happening. He also could not say whether Cult City Tours has had any impact on downtown.
“I’m not trying to take sides,” said Robinson, who is not a member of Scientology. “I’m just trying to sell pizza.”