Monday, August 09, 2004

I thought this was an excellent letter to the editor that showed up in the St. Petersburg times. Thought I'd reprint it here before it disappears into the ether of the WorldWideWeb.

"Re: Scientology's town, July 18.

Thank you for the time and attention of your reporter in ensuring accuracy in the recent two-part series on Scientology in Clearwater. (Tampabay: Scientology's town, Tampabay: About Scientology, Tampabay: The history of Scientology: A timeline, Tampabay:Scientology: Striving for mainstream, building new connections and Tampabay: Four key Scientologists)

The Scientology religion has grown at an unprecedented rate internationally in recent years, and that of course is reflected in Clearwater, the home of our international religious retreat. There is no conflict between that expansion and the revitalization of downtown, which benefits the entire community, a community much more diverse than some suggest. In addition to church staff and parishioners, the community includes 1,400 Pinellas County employees, 1,000 city of Clearwater employees, 1,000 business employees who work downtown, and the more than 100,000 residents who live within a 3-mile radius.

The downtown Starbucks is a good example of an amenity enjoyed by all citizens of Clearwater. Certainly the number of church parishioners and staff in Clearwater was a major factor considered by Starbucks. That is to be expected. Starbucks, like any business, must have confidence that it will succeed, and success means volume of customers. Similarly, the church presence would be a major economic factor in the decision of any other business or national chain considering opening downtown.

The economic impact of the church on downtown development is not based primarily on the church staff who live in Clearwater, but rather on the thousands of visiting parishioners who travel to Clearwater from around the world. In fact, they provide the same economic impact as "tourists" but year round. As your article explained, this presents an ideal opportunity for the development of downtown.

Downtown was a ghost town when the church moved to Clearwater in 1975. While it had previously thrived and was enjoyed by all local citizens, development had concentrated on the beach for tourists and on the malls for residents. At that time it appeared unlikely downtown could be developed as a destination point. The church filled that void. Today, virtually any retailer - especially name-brand stores, restaurants or a theatre - can expect to survive because of the numbers of Scientologists living and visiting in downtown. And that benefits all citizens, since the new facilities will be available to anyone, as in the case of Starbucks.

While some critics, who are not involved in downtown planning and do not know the factors involved in its development, may believe our motivations are selfish, they miss the point. Of course we would like a nice downtown with shops and restaurants and entertainment for the benefit of our visiting parishioners. But the church presence is also a "selling point" to bring those businesses downtown. If the city wants to use that presence, we not only do not object, we support the city in its efforts.

As we explained to the mayor, the city manager, and other city officials, and as people involved in downtown planning and others of goodwill have recognized, church and city expansion plans are not a point of conflict, but of cohesion. Cooperation is necessary to be successful.

It is time for us to move forward and work together to create the vibrant downtown that 80 percent of the citizens recently surveyed by the city said they want.

-- Ben Shaw, director, Church of Scientology, Flag Service Organization, Clearwater"

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