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Did Scientology Pay $3 Million To Foil an “Independent Scientology Org” in Clearwater?

The Arnold Building

The Arnold Building

Last night, Tampa Bay Times reporter Charlie Frago published another fascinating scoop: The Church of Scientology paid a premium — more than $3 million — for a parcel of land in a key downtown Clearwater, Florida location which included an aging five-story office building.

Frago said the church wasn’t saying why it paid so much money for a collection of properties that the county had assessed at about $610,000. Rumors, he said, had the church buying the land for new housing for workers, or perhaps for a retirement home for church employees.

A retirement home. Yeah, that’s a good one.

We think we’ve solved this mystery, and we did it by talking to someone who often purchased property for Scientology leader David Miscavige and did so, he tells us, not because the church needed it, but simply to keep it out of the hands of Miscavige’s perceived enemies.

When we saw that there was a question about a Scientology land purchase in Clearwater, we immediately called Tom DeVocht in California.

DeVocht was a 28-year veteran of Scientology’s Sea Org who left the church in 2005. At that point, he was working at the church’s International Base near Hemet, California. But for years before that, he was Scientology’s top facilities executive in Clearwater. It was DeVocht’s job to buy and sell properties in the town that is the spiritual headquarters of the worldwide organization.

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There were numerous times, he says, when Miscavige ordered him to pay premium prices to get control of property simply to keep it out of other hands.

“Huge money, for crappy little properties,” DeVocht told us last night by telephone.

For example, he said, Miscavige was determined to keep the Lisa McPherson Trust out of downtown, and he ordered DeVocht to purchase properties based only on rumors about where Robert Minton was looking to house the LMT.

Minton was a wealthy businessman who formed the Lisa McPherson Trust in 1999 in order to protest and publicize the death of McPherson, a church member who had perished at Scientology’s Fort Harrison Hotel in Clearwater on December 5, 1995. For several years, Minton and the LMT were a thorn in the side of Miscavige and the church, and Miscavige wanted to keep the LMT out of downtown at all costs.

“When we heard that the LMT was moving in, Miscavige called me in and told me, ‘I want you to buy everything. Buy everything that they might move into.’ And I spent huge money. He was desperate to keep them out,” DeVocht says.

And he thinks history may be repeating itself.

We told DeVocht about the Tampa Bay Times story, that Scientology has purchased the northern third of a “super block” that the city of Clearwater was hoping would attract development, something the downtown sorely needs. The super block is bounded by Drew Street on the north, Fort Harrison Avenue on the east, Laura Street on the south, and Osceola Avenue on the west. On the west side of the property the church purchased is a five-story building (see photo above). The property was sold to the church by Lee Arnold Jr.

 

The "super block" the city of Clearwater wanted to attract developers, and the portion purchased by Scientology (orange box).

The “super block” the city of Clearwater hoped would attract developers, and the portion purchased by Scientology (orange box).

 
“The Arnold Building!” DeVocht told us once he could visualize the property we were talking about. He then filled us in on that office building’s significance.

About three years ago, he tells us, several former church executives who were promoting the idea of an “independent Scientology” movement began talking about the Arnold Building as one they would like to purchase if they could come up with the money. (DeVocht himself isn’t an “indie,” he points out.)

It would be the world’s first “independent Scientology org,” and its location so close to Scientology’s own mecca, the Fort Harrison Hotel, which is only about four blocks south, was purely intentional.

The Arnold Building would get a giant “OT” symbol on the roof. Other signs would beckon Scientology workers to come inside, with slogans like “There’s no IAS in here,” a reference to the pressure put on Scientologists to donate huge sums to the International Association of Scientologists.

If they had the money, these indies said, they loved the idea of setting up shop right under Miscavige’s nose. We’re told that they spread rumors of their plans, knowing that they would get back to Miscavige, and unsettle him.

“That is the building that they were looking at, the Lee Arnold building,” DeVocht tells us. “It was going to be the Indie Scientology Org, to start a new church. And if Scientology got wind of that, they would have bought everything up. Because they freak out about that.”

Even a couple of years after those rumors were spread?

Tom DeVocht

Tom DeVocht

“Absolutely,” DeVocht says. “When that property came up for sale, Miscavige would buy it simply because he would want to keep it out of indie hands. And I have to tell you, that sucks for downtown Clearwater. That area was the city’s last gasp for development down there. But it’s done. It’s over for Clearwater.”

As Frago pointed out in his story, the area has long been a key ingredient in the city’s hoped-for downtown revival. “For years, plans conjuring visions of swanky offices, boutique hotels, destination restaurants and luxury condos came and went,” Frago wrote.

DeVocht says the church was well aware that it was the town’s major problem, and has been since Scientology invaded the town using a deceptive cover story in 1975. But Clearwater has tried to revive itself despite the presence of the church, and another attempt was made while he was still working there, DeVocht says.

“The city was trying to do a whole redevelopment program. It had five big developers come in with plans, big companies in Florida. But the church was a major concern,” DeVocht says. “And I got Starbucks into downtown Clearwater, for the city, to show that we could bring people in. But the only people that go to the place, really, are church members. That was the problem with movie theaters and other things there. Would people at the beach come to downtown if they didn’t want to come near the church? Talking to the developers, they said the church was the problem. You couldn’t guarantee success for anything going in down there. The church has destroyed any possibility of successful development.”

DeVocht had an additional note about the property that the church purchased. He said the inflated price might reflect the cost of the “West Coast Building” at 118 N. Fort Harrison Ave.

In the Tampa Bay Times story, that three-story building is referred to as “already owned” by the church. But DeVocht says he doesn’t think that’s true.

“It might have been kept confidential, but we sold that building and leased it back. I did the deal with Ed Armstrong and Lee Arnold,” he says. So the purchase of the top third of the “super block” may include ownership of the West Coast Building. “It might explain the high price,” he says.

DeVocht adds that not only has the church’s presence hurt Clearwater, but the church itself is in dire straits — even if it is spending money for real estate.

“Miscavige can say that they’re buying up property, and I guess it sort of looks good to outsiders. But the truth is, they’re falling apart.”

 
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Posted by Tony Ortega on September 26, 2013 at 07:00

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