CLEARWATER — The Church of Scientology's proposal to bring retail and entertainment downtown is a novel development, but the recent rollout of its plans has a tone that goes back decades.
Scientology's long-standing zeal for expansion and penchant for secrecy have manifested in several ways: the scale of its plans for Cleveland Street, its private meetings with elected officials and its hushed effort to snap up millions of dollars' worth of property after promising the city it wouldn't.
It's an assertive approach that comes up time and again in teachings by founder L. Ron Hubbard and other writings. When it comes to handling governments and widening influence, the church's strategy is a matter of scripture.
In a 1961 series of letters on church policy called "Keeping Scientology Working," Hubbard writes about skirting government approvals.
"Do they think a society in this shape will approve Scientology into power? Hell no! And to hell with this society. We're making a new one. So let's skip the approval button from a lot of (non-Scientologists) and settle down to work to make new people and better people."
Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw said in a statement that other religions like Christianity and Judaism also seek to make people spiritually better, and he objected to a non-Scientologist wanting to interpret the passage.
The context of Keeping Scientology Working, Shaw said, "is something you could not be expected to understand, and your inference as to its meaning is both inaccurate and inappropriate."
But the meaning of that and similar passages is just what it sounds like, said Mike Rinder, who spent 25 years as a senior Scientology executive before defecting in 2007. Once the church's international spokesman, Rinder said Scientology leader David Miscavige's retail plan for downtown is an embodiment and fulfillment of its preachings "to take over governments."
"Really it's not specifically Clearwater," he said. "Scientology believes that they are going to take over the world. This means bringing everybody into compliance with the goals and objectives of Scientology."
With the church's international spiritual headquarters located downtown at the 300,000-square-foot Flag Building, Rinder said insulating that footprint is a priority for church leaders.
If Miscavige succeeds and recruits retail to the struggling downtown, he will instruct local and visiting Scientologists to frequent the shops, Rinder said. That, he said, would create a "perimeter of safety" around the Flag headquarters and the Fort Harrison Hotel, so parishioners can take courses and buy church counseling sessions and not have to cross paths with outsiders.
"It's to create a buffer," Rinder said. "It's an attempt to protect what makes the income."
In private meetings March 14, Miscavige described to City Council members his strategy to recruit retailers to empty storefronts downtown and bankroll a facade overhaul for buildings along Cleveland Street.
The plan includes building an entertainment complex along Myrtle Avenue with actor and noted Scientologist Tom Cruise. The redevelopment, Miscavige suggested, hinges on the church's ability to buy a 1.4-acre lot owned by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium adjacent to Scientology's 13-story Oak Cove religious retreat.
In addition to the $260 million in property that Scientology owns under its name in Clearwater, the church also bought $26 million in downtown real estate over the past two months through shell companies after Community Redevelopment Agency director Seth Taylor said he was assured in October the church's plan did not involve buying more property.
Mayor George Cretekos said Miscavige told him the church had to quietly acquire property for its retail strategy so sellers would not inflate prices.
But one of those properties the church bought through a shell company in February has no retail purpose at all. The landmark Atrium tower on Cleveland Street leases office space to more than 30 local businesses and is anchored by SunTrust Bank.
Aaron Smith-Levin, 36, who oversaw courses and counseling as a member of the church's Sea Org workforce before leaving in 2013, said controlling sectors of society to push Scientology dogma is explicit policy.
"Once a (business) is known as being antagonistic to Scientology, Scientologists are told not to go there," Smith-Levin said. "The SunTrust building is where a lot of local companies have taken up office. Any one of those who becomes known as being anti-Scientology … are not going to have a lease renewed."
The strategy for bringing businesses and governments into compliance with Scientology is outlined in a policy called "The Special Zone Plan."
Written by Hubbard in 1960, it gives the example of a Scientologist housewife who takes over a women's club as secretary and "straightens up the club affairs" by pushing Scientology into areas like marriage advice — and taking fees for it.
The founder encourages members to get jobs like secretarial staff or bodyguards with access to department heads so they can influence the environment. He describes a police officer selling Scientology by "handling the familial problems of the commissioner as his driver or making the rookies gasp at how fast he could train them." Soon, Hubbard writes, the officer will have "altered the whole character, ability and effectiveness of the police force" and, in time, change "the whole approach to law enforcement in that area."
"The cue in all this is don't seek the cooperation of groups," Hubbard writes. "Don't ask for permission. Just enter them and start functioning to make the group win through effectiveness and sanity."
Shaw said the Special Zone Plan is "simply an idea of how to help every area of society to do better in life." He said passages from the Bible also could be misinterpreted to infer ulterior motives of Christians working near government.
When Scientology arrived in Clearwater in 1975, it purchased the Fort Harrison Hotel for its headquarters under a false name with $2.3 million cash. It took a year for the church to identify itself. In the meantime, Scientologists ran a smear campaign against then-Mayor Gabe Cazares and other officials, journalists and citizens who questioned the church.
The operation was outlined in various documents, including "Project Normandy," which described church operations to investigate everyone in the Clearwater area — from the sheriff to the city attorney — to determine whom Scientology officials needed "to penetrate and handle in order to establish area control."
Shaw said the church office responsible for the Normandy plot was disbanded long ago for unethical behavior.
Karen Pressley, a former Sea Org staffer who left the church in 1998, said investment in real estate and retail is a strategy to make it appear Scientology has influence in the corporate world at a time when membership is reportedly declining.
She said Miscavige was demonstrating that influence by meeting with City Council members privately and using a policy called "safe pointing" to make area leaders feel comfortable with Scientology. That, in turn, makes it easier to persuade them to align with his objectives.
"Without a safe point established," Hubbard writes, "it is a waste of time to rush into dealings with a government or to promise them anything. It is too easy to step on hostile toes and to arouse suspicion of you or make you difficult to account for."
Pressley, a fashion designer, worked directly under Miscavige when she was brought to Clearwater in 1995 from her post as commanding officer of the church's Celebrity Center in Los Angeles. Her job was to design new uniforms for the Sea Org.
She said if Miscavige recruits retail to the downtown core, and the general public doesn't feel it's a welcome place for non-Scientologists, it will still be billed a success within the church.
"My job used to be making Scientology look good in terms of the staff," she said. "It's the same concept with making Scientology look good with buildings. Even if people don't come into the buildings, it's enough for Scientology to show that they bought the property and they are going to hold control of the real estate. Scientology is all about public perception."
In a 1996 article, the church's Source magazine discussed goals for moving Scientology to the forefront of society and advanced the notion of making "Clearwater known as the first Scientology city in the world."
"At Flag," the article states, "we are deadly serious about making these goals happen."
Shaw said the church is attempting to finalize its retail plan for downtown so it can become public. If those plans come to fruition and are released, he said they will be for the benefit of everybody.
"A beautiful, thriving downtown is something we desire as much as anybody in Clearwater," he said.
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.