As I've noted before in this space, The Life of David Gale once offered this dubious advice regarding cultural geography: "You know you are in the Bible belt when there are more churches than Starbucks." How to make sense of this rule, however, when the Starbucks is in a building owned by a Scientologist, recruited there by both city officials and Scientologists? That tasty detail appears in a two-part series by reporter Robert Farley of the St. Petersburg Times.
Farley's two main stories (Scientology's town and Striving for mainstream, building new connections) tell of Scientologists' gradual journey toward greater acceptance in Clearwater, Fla., since they first bought property there in 1975. The series mentions Scientologists' beliefs only briefly, in a sidebar, so the bulk of writing is a mix of business, political and social reporting. But the reporting is crisp, and it tells of how Scientology continues to expand its presence in Clearwater's struggling downtown. (An especially impressive online touch is an interactive map showing the key downtown properties, including 11 owned by Scientologists.)
Here is how Farley describes the important role of Starbucks:
One of the fruits of the church's working relationship with the city sits at Fort Harrison Avenue and Cleveland Street: Starbucks.
One of the few national chains with an outlet downtown, Starbucks was recruited by a tag team of church and city officials. The deal was sealed once the church agreed that Starbucks could sell coffee at the Fort Harrison Hotel. Starbucks opened, to much fanfare, in a building owned by a Scientologist.
Increasingly, downtown business people appreciate Scientology's catalytic efforts.
"If they moved out, this place would be a ghost town," said Traci Walters, owner of Oceans Funding.
The series also notes that Calvary Baptist Church plans to leave its downtown campus:
"I am concerned that Clearwater, Fla., has become synonymous with being a mecca for Scientologists," said Jim Underwood, a deacon at Calvary Baptist, which is moving after more than 100 years from its downtown home to eastern Clearwater.
"Salt Lake City is the center of the universe for Mormons. That's what Clearwater has become for Scientologists," Underwood said. "As far as overall impact, I don't think it provides a healthy environment for businesses or tourists or the community at large."
Farley even offers a good New Urbanism angle:
Once the new Memorial Causeway is finished, it will divert traffic from the commercial core. Many see downtown heading in one of two directions. It could ride the wave of New Urbanism and become another Hyde Park, or it could become a Scientology campus.
"We'll have Clearwater Beach, Scientology City and Countryside," said Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala. She is one of a growing number of politicians who are friendly to the church, but a one-dimensional downtown, she says, is "not a good mix."
A Scientology identity would dismay many in Clearwater, where a crush of uniformed church staffers walk the streets and often are targets of whispers and jokes. The church's own research last year determined that many in Pinellas consider Scientology a cult, mysterious and secretive. Most also said they know little about the church, other than John Travolta is a member.