CLEARWATER — Ted Reinhard said he is sorry.
The Cult City Tours operator generally apologized to the City Council on Thursday, one week after he wrote negative online reviews about multiple businesses that falsely accused them of serving only members of the Church of Scientology.
“Admittedly, 100 percent, things went off the rails lately and that is the truth,” Reinhard told the Council. “We apologize, we have fixed our error and sincerely hope for stronger relationships with our wonderful downtown businesses.”
After “listening to our fans,” Reinhard also deleted his Google Reviews against two businesses on Wednesday, a day after they were reported in the Tampa Bay Times.
Cult City Tour’s apology did not fly with most Council members, who said Reinhard has already damaged the city’s efforts to revitalize a struggling downtown. From the tour’s name, to Reinhard smearing business owners who haven’t embraced him, city leaders said the tours are only creating more tension around Scientology’s presence downtown.
“You call it the cult city. That does more damage in one sentence I think than a year’s worth of work that everybody’s put together here,” member David Allbritton said. “Then when I hear about the bullying of the restaurants and what happened there, that put me over the top as well. You’re telling everybody how Scientology bullies and then you pull the exact same thing.”
Reinhard said he launched the tongue-in-cheek tour in February as a way to demystify the presence of Scientology and bring more foot traffic to downtown businesses. He said he has hosted 300 people so far, many of whom had previously avoided downtown because of the church.
But last week, tension that was building over his weekly tours peaked. Scientology defector Aaron Smith-Levin was trying to organize a gathering at a Cleveland Street wine bar and a restaurant to follow a Cult City Tours special event Saturday that drew about 90 attendees.
After Reinhard said the two restaurants declined to host the 90 people, he wrote the one-star Google Reviews.
On Thursday, Smith-Levin told the Council he thought the criticisms of Cult City Tours were fair but that they had nothing to do with the special event he helped organize Saturday. Seven former members of Scientology guest-hosted an educational tour and donated proceeds to Smith-Levin’s Aftermath Foundation, which helps people leaving the church.
But as he was trying to give business owners notice last week that they would be bringing attendees to the restaurants following the tour, Smith-Levin said Scientology representatives visited businesses on Cleveland Street “to spread false information and fear about what the event was going to be.”
“Scientology actively thwarted meaningful economic activity from occurring in The District on Saturday,” said Smith-Levin. The tour hosts brought the group to Safety Harbor for dinner instead.
The Tampa Bay Times confirmed that Scientology representatives visited at least two businesses prior to the event.
Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw declined to comment on the church’s discussions with businesses regarding Smith-Levin’s event but called Cult City Tours “bigoted propaganda.”
Mayor Frank Hibbard acknowledged the First Amendment right Reinhard has to run his tours. But he condemned Reinhard’s behavior targeting business owners who have worked tirelessly to revitalize downtown.
“When they say that these businesses only cater to Scientologists, well that’s a bunch of crap because I go to all of the businesses that were mentioned and I’m a Southern Baptist and always have been,” Hibbard said. “So to smear somebody like that and to try to scare people away from coming to certain businesses I think is inexcusable.”
Only council member Mark Bunker showed interest in helping Reinhard reform.
He urged Reinhard to change the name of the tour business and not mock the church. Bunker, a longtime Scientology critic elected last year on his platform of standing up to the church, said Reinhard is missing an opportunity.
There are fascinating and factual stories to tell about Scientology’s history and policies without poking fun, he said.
“It is something that people know about Clearwater and it can be turned into a positive if done properly,” Bunker said. “No mocking, drop that name and support all the businesses that we have been trying to support.”
On Friday, Reinhard said he plans to host an online poll to allow the public to decide the name of the tour company.
That could include Cult City Tours “if the fans decide,” he said.