Scientologists may be Ybor Square's biggest struggle yet
By STEVE OTTO Steve Otto
The story that the Church of Scientology had bought Ybor Square made the front page of Mother Trib on Thursday.
Other than the continuing oil disaster in the Gulf, it was the most talked about event of the week, and understandably so.
For one thing, the old Don Vincente Martinez Ybor cigar factory, once the largest cigar factory in the world, is a historic treasure. Constructed in 1886, down through the years thousands of workers produced handmade cigars in its great hall, while listening to the "lectors" read books and newspapers from a perch overlooking them.
It was on the east steps of the factory that Cuban patriot Jose Marti fired up the crowds in 1893, rallying support for the Cuban revolution against Spain.
Shoot, it was even the place where a group of conspirators almost a century later cooked up - over a few beers - plans for an event they would call Guavaween. I was one of them.
Harris Mullen's dream
Back in the early 1970s, Tampa businessman Harris Mullen took the old factory and transformed it into what he called Ybor Square. He moved in his Florida Trend magazine offices and opened up several floors to small vendors as well as a couple of restaurants. His vision was that Ybor Square would be the anchor that would return Ybor City to its glory days.
It had its moments, but Ybor Square struggled, as did the rest of Ybor, as the historic quarter tried to reinvent itself as something more than a string of bars along Seventh Avenue.
In 2002, the three-building complex was redeveloped again, this time getting a $6 million makeover from an Orlando developer to be reborn as an office complex.
Now it has been sold again, this time to the Church of Scientology for a reported $7 million. The church has said it will move its offices from an old and smaller cigar factory on Habana Avenue to the new Ybor location.
As you might imagine, this has stirred up plenty of emotion. If you've spent any time in downtown Clearwater, where the church has a vast complex, or know anything about Scientology, this is pretty understandable. The church has been a center of controversy for years, and seeing the uniformed and secretive converts roam the streets of Clearwater is little short of creepy.
In past years, friends of mine in this business in Pinellas County have been harassed and threatened by members of this so-called church, and that worries me.
A Lutheran potluck?
I asked myself how I would feel if someone had said Ybor Square was being taken over by the Catholic Church, or maybe the Lutherans. What about the Baptists? I've been trying to imagine hundreds of Baptists marching on Ybor on a Wednesday night for services, or maybe the Lutherans converging into Ybor for a giant potluck dinner on a Sunday night. That could be creepy, too.
The real nut may be that zoning rules prohibit "places of religious assembly," and the Scientologists have said they plan on using their facilities for religious gatherings, as well as office space. It makes you wonder how the church was able to get this thing through the city's legal beagles. The nearby Cuban Club has filed an appeal with the Barrio Latino Commission that will be heard on July 20.
Whatever happens, it's clear that the old factory is about to add another chapter to the long history of this corner of Ybor City.
related stories here: http://www.forum.exscn.net/showthread.php?t=18044