YBOR CITY - More than two years ago when the Church of Scientology bought and renovated Ybor Square, some welcomed the Scientologists' commitment to restoring an iconic brick-and-mortar symbol of Ybor's past as "cigar capital of the world." Others worried the move signaled a greater presence for Scientologists in Tampa, the loss of a valuable property from the tax rolls and an army of aggressive Scientologists on Ybor's streets recruiting people to their beliefs. The worst predictions haven't happened. Instead, there appears to be a quiet acceptance of the church that has had a lower profile than many people expected. "I forget they're here half the time," said store clerk Kia Thomas at The Nitty Gritty. "You see them walking around sometimes handing out things."
On Tuesday, a dozen or more students from Washburn Academy in Clearwater walked along Seventh Avenue handing out brochures titled, "The Way to Happiness." The activity was part of a daylong Scientology open house in celebration of International Day of Friendship. About 200 people were expected, said church spokeswoman Mimi Kintzel. Instead of the typical display of videos explaining aspects of Scientology, visitors could view clips highlighting the "way to happiness" guidelines of church founder and science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. They included rules of conduct such as "Love and help children" and "Don't be promiscuous." Also, as part of the event, a group of schoolchildren were invited to the church to make friendship bracelets. Dallas Ruffin, mentor coordinator for Tampa Bay Academy of Hope, stopped by to speak with church officials about her school. "We're always looking for faith-based mentors," Ruffin said. "They are positive people." The Church of Scientology, which has its spiritual headquarters in Clearwater, has met with opposition from some communities where it has located. Opponents wearing masks, with a group known as Anonymous, showed up when the church's religious leader, David Miscavige, attended the opening of the center in Ybor. The church bought Ybor Square for about $7 million in 2010, records show. It spent about $6 million renovating the three-building complex at 1911 N. 13th St., between Eighth and Ninth avenues. The complex is the former home of what was once the largest cigar factory in the world, built in 1886 by cigar magnate Don Vicente Martinez Ybor. Cuban freedom fighter José Martí stood on the factory's cast-iron steps to deliver a speech in 1893. A tobacco bale press, a foreman's desk and a lector's stand are among antiques preserved in the church's building. An ornate tin ceiling that might have hung in Martinez Ybor's former office was uncovered and restored during renovations. "It's a passion (of the church) to bring it back to its roots," Kintzel said. The building has been included on historical tours of Ybor. Church officials have hosted an art show in the square's courtyard and inside the building. The church also participates in some Ybor festivals with booth displays. The church is recognized by the Internal Revenue Service as a religious organization, but critics say it isn't a traditional place of worship. The church's reception in Ybor has been similar to what happened in Plant City when church officials opened the Church of Scientology Life Improvement Center in the community's historical downtown. After initially worrying about a Scientology takeover, Plant City residents and community officials credited church leaders with being good neighbors. Sam Hamdan of Ybor Supermarket said Scientologists have shopped at his store. "They're good people," he said. "I wouldn't lie to you. I don't have a problem." The church has reached out to the Ybor community and supports its businesses, Kintzel said. They have helped with cleanups and handed out water bottles to volunteers, said Carrie West, president of the GaYBOR Coalition, which promotes gay-owned, gay-friendly businesses in Ybor. Tom Keating, president of the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce, said: "They fit right into the family. It's very low-key. Lately I haven't heard a single complaint." It has been more than a year since Vince Pardo got his last phone call from a resident complaining about an overzealous Scientologist at Ybor's Saturday Market. Pardo, who is urban development manager for Ybor City Development Corp., was told the young man acted on his own, not as part of a planned Scientology event. "I can't ask for a better relationship," Pardo said. "There were concerns for obvious reasons when they bought Ybor Square. We found out after the fact." The secrecy heightened fears about Scientologists' plans and the organization's effect on Ybor's historical character. Scientology was not new to Ybor when church officials bought Ybor Square. For years, a Life Improvement Center operated in a storefront on Eighth Avenue. Property taxes are paid on the Ybor Square site because some space is non-church related. The Spaghetti Warehouse restaurant and Creative Loafing newspaper have leases with the church. County records show the church paid about $91,000 in property taxes in 2010, the year it bought the property. Last year's tax bill was about $28,000. The church continues its effort reach out to Ybor residents and merchants with use of its building for community meetings. "So far things have been fine," Pardo said. "And they did a phenomenal job rehabbing Ybor Square." [email protected] (813) 259-7652