Neighbors Worry As Scientology Moves In

Source: Tampa Tribune
Date: April 10, 2003

Group Sets Up Shop In Restored Cigar Factory

Teri Gonzalez and her sister-in-law know actors Tom Cruise and John Travolta are members of the Church of Scientology, but beyond that they don't know much about it.

But their curiosity has been raised, because the church recently opened a location at 3102 N. Habana Ave., a block from their home.

Their neighbor, Susan Tennyson, said workers have made construction noise during the night and traffic has increased in the neighborhood.

"I'm not happy they are here," said Tennyson, who lives adjacent to the church. "I think they bring down the value of our homes because they have a cult type of stigma. I moved here because it's a family neighborhood, and that has been taken away."

Last year, the Church of Scientology of Tampa purchased the Andres Diaz Building, a 1908 former cigar factory, for $1.2 million. The church has improved the interior of the four-story building and has landscaped the property.

Church officials said they outgrew the 8,000-square-foot office they had rented in South Tampa since 1982. The new building is almost 20,000 square feet.

Inside the brick building, there are administrative offices, counseling and course work rooms, a film room, a chapel, a library, a bookstore and an L. Ron Hubbard room. Hubbard, who founded the Church of Scientology, died in 1986.

The church is trying to be good neighbors and work with the community, said Ana Tirabassi, spokeswoman for the Church of Scientology of Tampa. Members have visited many homes in the area to introduce themselves and had invited residents to the grand opening in March, Tirabassi said.

Eulalia Barranco, who has lived in the neighborhood 27 years, said she is encouraged that a religious group took over the building.

"I don't think it's a bad investment, because it's a church," Barranco said. "It doesn't bother me. Whatever church moves there is good, even though I'm a Catholic."

City Councilwoman Mary Alvarez went to the grand opening and said she was impressed. Alvarez doesn't pay much attention to the talk that the church may purchase more property in West Tampa, as it did in downtown Clearwater.

"At this point, it is speculation," Alvarez said. "I can't worry about something that isn't happening.

"They went into a neighborhood that is predominantly Hispanic and Catholic," Alvarez said. "If they try to reach out into the community for conversion, they are probably going to face a rough time."

Along with purchasing the building, the church acquired an adjacent parking lot. It is considering purchasing more property in West Tampa to make room for their community outreach programs, Tirabassi said, including drug awareness programs, cleanup projects and literacy classes.

Earl Haugabook, president of the West Tampa Chamber of Commerce, said he is concerned if the church plans to grow in West Tampa.

"They could easily buy a whole bunch of property," Haugabook said. "We want a diversified community with businesses who are going to come in and offer jobs and keep the West Tampa mystique. We don't want West Tampa known as the Scientology capital."