Hello Reddit, I'm Tracey McManus. For the last four years, I've reported on the Church of Scientology for the Tampa Bay Times.

For the last six months, I've been investigating a spate of real estate purchases in downtown Clearwater, Fla. The Church of Scientology and companies run by its members have spent $103 million since 2017 buying about 100 properties. They now own most commercial property on every block within walking distance of the waterfront. We built a graphic demonstrating just how little is left.

Downtown Clearwater is next to a beautiful waterfront just over the bridge from Clearwater Beach, a national tourist destination. Yet downtown is dotted with empty storefronts. The purchases took off as the city was developing a $64 million plan to turn the area around. We don’t know whether these purchases will help the city’s goal.

The church's tumultuous history in the city starts in 1975, when Scientology bought a downtown hotel with a straw corporation, secretly moved in and wrote plans to take control. I recap the whole history here.

In April 2017, the city snubbed Scientology Leader David Miscavige. Miscavige cut off all communication. Then LLCs controlled by church parishioners began buying up property at an unprecedented rate. In just three years, the downtown footprint of property tied to the church doubled.

The church has declined to speak with me and criticized my newspaper for portraying its members as “mindless robots.” But defectors from the church and city leaders believe there is little chance parishioners are making all these deals without the church’s involvement.

For more, read the investigation here. We also published a story on what city council members think.

Times data reporter and graphics wiz u/elimurray is also around to answer questions about how he made the graphics (check out another amazing project here. You may remember him from his popular AMA on Zombie Campaigns last year).


EDIT: Y'all! Our server hosting the main investigation is down, so you can't read the story right now. We're trying to fix it ASAP. We're bummed. In the meantime, I'll still be here, answering your questions! Please check back later to read the story.

EDIT2: We've stabilized the server and the story should be back up and running - hopefully you can check it out now if you were having trouble earlier. Thanks!

EDIT3: Ok all, I'm headed out. But I will try to hop on later to answer a few more questions. Thank you so very much for your interest in our investigation and for all the comments expressing support for local journalism. We will keep on it!

Edit4: I'm back! For a little while until I get too sleepy ... jumping back into questions now. Ask us anything.

Edit 5: That's it for tonight. Thank you all again for your interest in our reporting!

Comments: 3240 • Responses: 45  • Date: 

sadate19096 karma

Are you proud of yourselves?

Because you should be. These types of things are pretty much only discovered by dedicated local reporters like yourself. You may not hear enough (or at all) but your work is not only appreciated but an integral part to our functioning society. Thank you.

TraceyMcManus11810 karma

I cannot tell you how much we appreciate this comment. Local newspapers are struggling all across America. Many have shut down. Hundreds of communities have no local watchdog holding people accountable, exposing corruption and celebrating the stories of the people who live in their communities. Society needs journalism -- local journalism most of all. We are trying our best to continue the legacy of local journalism in this new era of smaller staffs, fewer resources and tons of people who try to label journalists as enemies for the simple fact we expose truth.

HouseBrownTownMouse2335 karma

YES. I am a Tampa Bay native and subscribe to the Tampa Bay times myself. Every time I hear people complain about the pay wall, I point to pieces like this. Not only do we need to pay journalists, but investigative reporting has expenses, such as pulling records and traveling. It's so important to support quality journalism. If we don't, everything will end up like Buzzfeed.

Thanks for what you and your team do Tracey!

TraceyMcManus1138 karma

You are so appreciated, thank you for your support!!!

dubnessofp327 karma

Another TBT subscriber here. I rarely ever read the print version and every Sunday when it comes my fiancee asks why I still continue to get it. My answer is the same every time, I am dedicated to supporting local journalism.

Pieces like this remind me why

TraceyMcManus165 karma

Thank you a million thank yous!!!!

XtremePhotoDesign369 karma

This is the first time I have personally seen a print journalist engaging with readers in this fashion, and I think it's great. Not only are you bringing attention to an important issue, but you are adding another dimension to journalism outside of just publishing it on the web.

TraceyMcManus253 karma

Thanks - our readers are really important to us. We want to hear your thoughts on our reporting and also ideas for what you are seeing and experiencing in your neighborhoods and communities.

designer_farts287 karma

That scroll graphic is beautiful btw

TraceyMcManus239 karma

Yep - my colleague Eli Murray is a data journalism genius!!!

WebLinkr253 karma

Congratulations and well done! Wow - $103m is a lot of money/power that this cult has! Please don't stop!

TraceyMcManus151 karma

We are committed to this story, we are on it! thanks so much for reading

misdirected_asshole268 karma

This here.

Subscribe to your local papers.

TraceyMcManus151 karma


SCOLE3868 karma

Props to dedicated journalists. Can’t stand most news sources. Biased one way or the other. BBC is a better pure source.

TraceyMcManus110 karma

Thanks so much! Please support local journalism. We are covering City Halls, schools, law enforcement and important issues in communities all over. It's easy to get jaded with the national noise. But we are here on the ground.

dmcd0415-2 karma

Literally no headway has been made into doing anything about Scientology or the people they hold hostage, and them getting the IRS to back off leads me to believe that they aren't concerned with a newspaper article, or any number of them, at all. I agree that the work dedicated local reporters do is important. Just not in this particular case. The Scientology episode of South park came out 14 years ago. Everybody knows, nobody (who can do anything about it) cares. The sands of my be-concerned-about-Scientology-hourglass have pretty much run out.

TraceyMcManus10 karma

Yeah, I'm going to disagree with you here. Journalists keep the community informed. Residents have a right and a need to know what is happening in their communities. It's our job to shed light and hold powerful institutions accountable. It's great when powers that be respond. But that's not always the objective. The objective here was to tell Clearwater residents what is happening in their downtown, something they would not have otherwise known.

HabibGaming12830 karma

do you know anything about The Hole? it is supposedly Scientology's version of a camp for those who wanted to leave, or have done something wrong. Members who have been to The Hole described it as torture; it would be interesting to see your take on it.

TraceyMcManus2686 karma

Yes our newspaper has written extensively about this. See the links at the bottom of Sunday's investigation - it links to the Tampa Bay Times 2009 Truth Rundown series. it is must-read journalism.




memesupreme832587 karma

Has there ever been any violent encounters with the church as you were exposing more info?

TraceyMcManus3440 karma

Nope I have never experienced violence. But the church did publish an issue of its Freedom Magazine one day after our story ran. It included an article criticizing my reporting from 2017 about David Miscavige's downtown revitalization plan. It was full of false statements and characterizations. Interestingly it did not acknowledge the recent purchases ,....

SouthernJeb1566 karma

Thank you for your work and efforts on this.

I lived about a half mile from downtown. Was harassed frequently at all hours of the night by official church representatives coming to our house looking "for people". We have never had an association with the church and the house was owned by the original builders of the home (my wifes family) who also used to own property downtown.

They are scum. They would follow and photograph me whenever i would ride my bike downtown.

Edit: they even showed up asking about my parents by name. My parents were not associated with any loans or bills and had no ties to the area or church. My only tie was my wife’s family who built the house and owned a lot of real estate in the area from the 40s on. They sold most by the late 80s.

TraceyMcManus940 karma

Hey SouthernJeb, I'd love to hear more about this. Could you email me at [[email protected]](mailto:[email protected])? Thanks

movieidentification1329 karma

Read the piece--it was fantastic. Other than donations / real estate holdings, how does the church maintain such a massive reserve of cash? Seems like if there are only ~30,000 members or so, it would be hard to keep up that kind of pace

Thanks again, really enjoyed it

TraceyMcManus1489 karma

Thanks so much for reading -- Scientology's cash stockpile is from the money it charges for courses, auditing and services; and large donations. Many members are very wealthy. Scientology pressures its members to make donations for Scientology expansion. There are members who donate many millions. I have many more questions about Scientology's finances though and other sources of income.

ms5h978 karma

Are you safe? Serious question.

TraceyMcManus1085 karma

I'm definitely being cautious, thanks for the concern!

JJPA32665 karma

Do you think that this attempt by Scientology to buy Clearwater is an attempt to normalize themselves to tourists and the local populace in an attempt to recruit more members and provide a base of operations for future Church plans?

Scientology has received a bad rap (deservedly so) over the past few years, and honestly as someone who hasn't looked into them very deeply, I've never really thought of Scientology has having any sort of "Home Base". They felt more like a loose conglomerate that operate more or less everywhere. By centralizing themselves somewhere that gives them a lot more power to operate more efficiently in whatever future plans they're looking to enact on.

Also, is there anything that can be done to oust them out of Clearwater at this point? Many Floridians knew that Scientologists were gathering in Clearwater over the past few years but besides being disapproving of it, couldn't really do anything about it other than just avoid the place.

TraceyMcManus994 karma

One of Scientology's biggest weaknesses is its public relations. It refuses to communicate with the media and local government. It refuses to be transparent about its goals and intentions. So I'm not sure if this is an attempt to normalize. Its behavior has raised way more questions and only deepened the mistrust in the community.

And Scientology has a right to be in Clearwater just like any other religious organization. However its behavior is what draws so much criticism and scrutiny. There is one agency with the power to respond: The IRS, which has the power determine whether or not Scientology's behavior deserves tax exempt status.

HauschkasFoot336 karma

Didn’t they get harassed into “determining” it in the first place?

TraceyMcManus276 karma

True - this is one great article that comes to mind but there's also been lots of great journalism on what went down between Scientology and the IRS


supermikeman117 karma

I think they want the property all to themselves. They want Clearwater to be Scientology's Mecca and don't care if tourists or residents want to be around them.

With regards to ousting them out of Clearwater; it's a big city in terms of land area. I think it's second behind St. Petersburg in Pinellas county. In my opinion the city might be better off making a community area elsewhere in the city. They don't have to sell any more land to the church if they don't want to but I feel that continuing to try and revitalize downtown will be just wasted money and effort.

TraceyMcManus115 karma

The idea of moving downtown elsewhere has been floated ... but the city owns the 22-acre waterfront. It's a stunning piece of property. On a natural bluff, views of the Intracoastal ... the city is right now planning a massive redevelopment to turn the waterfront into a vibrant park for all in the community. City officials say they can't control who buys private property around the city waterfront. But they can control what they own. So there is incentive to not throw in the towel.


So basically Scientology's version of Salt Lake City.


TraceyMcManus96 karma

There's a major difference between Salt Lake City and Clearwater - In SLC, the Mormon Church worked hand in hand with the local government to develop the downtown. It was a partnership. Here in Clearwater, David Miscavige developed a retail plan in secret. When the city did not agree to one stipulation (that the city step aside and let Scientology buy one vacant lot the church also bid on) - then Miscavige cut all communication. Then these massive land purchases by LLCs exploded. So ... not really a partnership. Or transparent. Or forthcoming.

amradiorules364 karma

Do you get bullied or followed by the squirrel busters for reporting about the church?

TraceyMcManus633 karma

Given Scientology's long, documented history of attacking journalists, I assume I am being watched. Anybody who covers Scientology should.

quotes-unnecessary299 karma

Are these properties now not going to be taxed anymore?

TraceyMcManus501 karma

Thanks for asking - it's an important distinction. Scientology owns 60 properties in Pinellas County under its name. 72 percent of them are tax exempt for religious purposes. The ~100 properties that we reported were bought by LLCs *controlled* by members of Scientology are on the tax rolls, not tax exempt. But if the owners don't do anything with the properties, just let them sit vacant as many of them are now, there is no economic benefit to the community.

quotes-unnecessary98 karma

Thank you!

Even on the ones that are tax exempt, don’t they have to prove that they are using it primarily for religious purposes? Is there enough documentation that is available to show that those properties are used for religious purposes?

TraceyMcManus125 karma

The county property appraiser is responsible for evaluating buildings for tax exemption and determining how much of each building is being used for religious purposes.

kharambula264 karma

Could there be ordinances proposed that required buildings to be in use? My understanding is that this ownership pattern makes downtown a veritable ghost town. How do you get enough citizens to fight back. Even with the fair game policy, it would seem that if enough people were willing to stand up for the town they live in the pushback would make a difference? Do you find that there isn't enough interest in locals to take action?

TraceyMcManus347 karma

There's been two reactions from locals to this story: 1-fight like hell to preserve downtown for everyone in the community 2-give up and throw in the towel. The city owns 22-acres of spectacular waterfront property. They are right now planning to develop it into a $64 million park for the community to enjoy. But whether or not these new landlords who control the retail district around the waterfront will respond by bringing in businesses is the question. The city right now does not have penalties for landlords with long vacant storefronts. I have heard several people push for this tho.

roriv218 karma

Hi Tracey and team! This is some absolutely great reporting! While the city is the biggest player in the downtown area impacted by this and I've seen your follow-up reaction piece from the Councilmembers, have you heard anything from the County and the other non-Scientologist land owners in the downtown area? What kind of reaction have you seen from the players that haven't already sold but might be tempted to do so if this derails the goals of the Imagine Clearwater plan?

TraceyMcManus221 karma

Thanks so much for the kind words. We will be following up in the next few weeks about more reactions from county officials, business owners, property owners and business community leaders. From my experience on this beat, people are very reluctant to talk about Scientology on the record. They are afraid of the repercussions. Few are willing to say publicly how they really feel because of Scientology's documented history of attacking critics. I think this story, which lays out indisputable evidence that Scientology coordinated a downtown takeover, has made people more willing to speak, tho.

Neknoh198 karma

Are you worried about physical retaliation if you come across something you're really not meant to find during your reports?

TraceyMcManus383 karma

Well I have spent a long time studying Scientology and its tactics. I know what other journalists experienced so I'm aware of the possibilities. But this is an important story, and we are going keep going no matter what.

SlashBolt165 karma

Tampa Bay Area resident here. How active is the church right now compared to their tax-exemption status in the 90's? I always assumed they were in decline as more people became aware of their activities, but I didn't think they'd be able to buy up so much property.

TraceyMcManus229 karma

Yeah that's an interesting aspect of Scientology. Although Scientology says it has millions of members, educated estimates put the number at no more than 30,000. It's real influence comes from the roughly $3 billion in cash and assets it has accumulated through its members. So it has power through its real estate and cash.

MrsNLupin155 karma

In your opinion, what do you think the endgame is here? Near total control of downtown Clearwater?

TraceyMcManus253 karma

I'm a fan of history and facts. From the history of the church's behavior and actions in Clearwater - the evidence tells us they want control. The question is whether they will use that power/control to squat on downtown real estate and prevent new restaurants, bars and fun things into downtown -- or if they will redevelop downtown into a vibrant district, just into something they have control over.

es330td119 karma

What specific concerns do locals have regarding this set of property purchases?

TraceyMcManus254 karma

Locals mainly want to know: what is the plan? what are they going to do with all this property? The church won't say. Parishioners won't say. But this was clearly a coordinated land assemblage. There has to be a plan. Are they going to squat on the properties to keep the public away? Are they going to bring businesses in? Develop the properties into cool shit for the public? We will work really hard to continue reporting on this and shine more light.

Ccallahan01180 karma

I live in Tampa currently, and lived in Dunedin for several years prior to this. Speaking as a semi-local at minimum - most people are concerned about other businesses being pushed out. Small businesses already have a hard time being in the black, if a majority population of a town won't frequent your business because you're not of their religion you're cut off at the knees again. Will Scientologists open up a plethora of businesses and draw business from Clearwater Beach to the downtown area? Will the downtown just become a larger campus for Scientology - will they start to make it into something even larger? Are these purchases made to help legitimize the cash flow and stabilize income if Scientology loses it's tax-free status? There's a smokescreen effect on any information out of Scientology so just there being so many unknown variables in concerning at the very least.

TraceyMcManus80 karma

You have some million dollar questions there. We don't know what Scientology is planning to do with these properties. They won't tell us and neither will the parishioners who control the companies. But I promise we will continue to cover this story every step of the way, every development. And we will keep digging. As we reported though, at least 7 non-scientologist businesses left downtown after their buildings were bought by Scientologists. In one case, a non-scientologist electrician left after an LLC tied to Scientology bought the building he owned for 22 years. A few months later, the new landlord brought a new electrician business in - this one owned by a Scientologist.

dnaustrem116 karma

Whats the worst thing you've come across that Scientology has perpetrated, and how does it compare to what other religions/spiritual institutions have done?

TraceyMcManus351 karma

By far the most shocking attack was on Paulette Cooper, a journalist who wrote an expose on Scientology in 1971 called The Scandal of Scientology. The church tried to destroy her - they lifted her fingerprint from an envelope that a Scientology spy who befriended her took from her apartment. They put the fingerprint on a bomb threat and mailed it to themselves. She was actually indicted for this crime. Tony Ortega, a longtime Scientology writer, wrote a fantastic book about Cooper's ordeal and her work - it's called The Unbreakable Miss Lovely - it's absolutely unbelievable

danwin114 karma

How did the idea for the story come about? Did a local official complain about it? Did a reporter one day wonder why the downtown area seem especially dead?

TraceyMcManus301 karma

This is an extension of my beat reporting. I have been covering Scientology and Clearwater since 2015. I first reported on Scientology's leader David Miscavige buying property downtown for a retail plan in 2017. Long story short - the city snubbed his plan and he went radio silent. But I continued to track downtown purchases by LLCs. I found so many, I asked my editors to give me time to dig in. Then I found way more than i even expected.

sbcsfrtom281 karma

It's it even accurate to call them a "church" at this point? I feel like stronger language is needed to get the point across as to what they really are, but I don't know what would be accurate and effective.

TraceyMcManus108 karma

I get this question a lot -- the fact is the IRS has deemed CoS a tax exempt religious organization. And many organizations that call themselves "churches" don't behave very holy. This is more of a philosophical question about religion in general.

Tiddilion72 karma

Have you been contacted by the ‘Church’ regarding any of your reporting?

TraceyMcManus146 karma

We always try very hard to give the church a chance to respond our reporting. They normally ignore our requests. For this story, we sent them detailed memos with our findings. They responded - but did not answer our pointed questions. They responded mostly by criticizing our reporting. They did not answer the direct question "did the church orchestrate or pay for any of the property purchases?"

DoctorWho42665 karma

In all your reporting and research, what has been the most fascinating and/or disturbing aspect of the "church" you've uncovered?

Follow up question, what is something that the general public doesn't know about the "church" that we really should.

Finally, How could someone help a friend or family member escape?

Thank you for your work and this AMA!

TraceyMcManus178 karma

I'd say the most concerning and least understood aspect is Scientology's treatment of children. Scientology teaches there are no children, just adults in child bodies. So children receive the same auditing (spiritual counseling) as adults. These auditing sessions are more like interrogations about secrets you are keeping that you have to confess in order to progress up the spiritual bridge. These auditing sessions often delve into sexual transgressions. So kids are asked about masturbation, fantasies, sex experiences. If they are victims of abuse, that is discussed too. But abusers are never reported to law enforcement because it is a "high crime" in Scientology to report a Scientologist to police. So abuser is not reported and victim is not given help. More on this to come in our reporting.

Edit: Also former members have created the Aftermath Foundation to help people trying to leave Scientology and get on their feet and acclimate to life after Scientology.

sheepsleepdeep62 karma

I had to reword this because I initially wanted to give you a compliment but apparently all top-level comments have to be questions, so, how does it feel to be a member of an organization like the Tampa Bay Times, who have absolutely killed it this year with breaking news and in-depth reporting?

TraceyMcManus65 karma

Dang, I'm just grateful to be a journalist working at a daily newspaper in America in 2019. There are so many talented and passionate journalists that have been forced to leave the industry as newspapers shrink across the country. It's been really painful. Journalists don't do this for the money. We do it because we actually give a shit about the truth and having an informed society! The losers of the decline of local newspapers are the residents. I really hope that we will see a rebirth of local news. We all understand now what it's like to not have daily newspapers: your politicians aren't held accountable, your tax dollars aren't being watched, you are not being told stories about the people who live and work around you .... this can't go on forever. So we all need to support a rebirth of local journalism. It won't be easy but we don't have any other option. Now I'm all emotional!!!!!!

Mr_Shuffle_Duffle59 karma

Great story and great reporting, Tracey. Did you personally have to review all those deeds?

TraceyMcManus124 karma

Thank you so much - and yes, I read literally hundreds of deeds. It took a lot of coffee to do this work.

EarlyCuylersCousin52 karma

Have you found any information that would suggest the known whereabouts of Miscavige’s missing/unseen wife? It’s been years since she has been seen in public or at all and it doesn’t seem like it gets talked about very often.

TraceyMcManus83 karma

The whearabouts of Shelly Miscavige is a mystery. But lots of people want to know why she has not been heard from for years.

sugeknight39 karma

Has the church started to look elsewhere in FL or along the FL coast or are they hellbent on Clearwater?

TraceyMcManus57 karma

The church does have holdings in other areas of Florida including Tampa and St Petersburg. Nothing (from what I've found so far) compares to its international spiritual headquarters in Clearwater tho

dannylew36 karma



FBI plz nerf, no religion should be allowed to control that much commercial real estate. Jesus fucking christ.

TraceyMcManus16 karma

thanks for reading!

Theblackarsehole25 karma

Do you have any evidence of local Clearwater councilmen being Scientologists? I know they have a history of infiltration in government I wonder how deep their influence actually goes.

TraceyMcManus53 karma

Good question considering Scientology does have a history of infiltrating governments. Based on my reporting, none of the sitting council members are members of Scientology. But I can say Scientology has a policy called Safe Pointing - this teaches that you don't have to be in power to have power. You don't have to be a member of the city council (or other leadership group) but you should put yourself around them, get to know them, try to influence from the periphery. That is a tactic Scientology uses to influence government and civic groups and to gain legitimacy.

Throwaway922472624 karma

Firstly, thank you for your work. My question is, what do you think draws celebrities like Tom Cruise and John Travolta to scientology, given how much bad publicity scientology gets, and how... strange their origin myth is?

TraceyMcManus39 karma

Thanks for reading! I think people get involved in Scientology for the same reason people join other religions or social groups. They are looking for something to believe in and they find a theology that works for them. The difference with Scientology is that it has a totalitarian hold on its followers in extraordinary ways. Lawrence Wright, in his phenomenal book Going Clear, explains the way Scientology uses celebrities for its benefit. It all started with founder L Ron Hubbard and his desire to gain legitimacy. But Scientology has undeniable control over these members. During auditing, members are interrogated about their secrets and their past behaviors. Auditors write these confessions down, keep them in folders indefinitely. Scientology has been accused over the decades for using this information as blackmail. Wright in his book describes some accounts from former members who believe Scientology is using information in Cruise and Travolta's folders to prevent them from leaving.

cpag052819 karma

A couple of things here - first off, like others have said, that graphic in the article is fantastic.

Secondly, have you reached out to any of the previous owners that sold the properties? Wouldn't that probably be the best route of action? I'd imagine most of them wouldn't mind explaining why they sold.

TraceyMcManus36 karma

yes - i interviewed the sellers of more than half the 92 properties bought by these LLCs. The responses they gave us are in the story - and their responses are what helped us confirm the way these purchases went down. They all went down very similarly. Many not on the market, a broker who was a Scientologist approached with an offer. Paid in cash. Lots of other interesting details in the story.

tk400something14 karma

Does the Tampa Bay Times offer good life insurance?

TraceyMcManus31 karma

Imma look into that

Torque-A3 karma

I don’t really have any questions at the moment, but I just wanted to thank you for everything you’ve done. Is there anything I can do to help support your cause, even if I don’t live around Clearwater or Tampa Bay myself?

TraceyMcManus3 karma

Thanks so much for your support. We recently created an Investigative Fund where people can donate to support our journalism

You could also subscribe to our newspaper.We depend on readers support to continue covering our community

If you don't live here, I would also encourage you to consider subscribing to your local newspaper in your town. Local journalism needs our support. it is critical to society and democracy, especially on the local level.

millerrc15-38 karma

First off I'm no fan of Scientology but as far as I can tell, everything they've done there is completely legal. Why do you care if they bought a ton of land? Maybe they want to remove the town that spurned a leader of theirs? Who cares if they're buying the property and not using shady tactics to force people out.

TraceyMcManus30 karma

Great question, millerrc15. This is so significant because of Scientology's history in Clearwater and its nature in general. Scientology came to Clearwater in 1975, established its international spiritual HQ here and immediately deployed a plan to "establish area control." They infiltrated government and civic offices. Ran smear campaigns. Ran a campaign to destroy the mayor, including framing him in a staged hit and run ... fast forward a few decades. The church is now downtown's largest landowner with 49 properties - private buildings for church use. The downtown is depressed, vacant storefronts, little foot traffic. The city is trying to revitalize. Scientology's founder L Ron Hubbard despised governments. He wrote about taking control of governments and replacing them with Scientology society. And it is a totalitarian organization. It demands full loyalty from parishioners. Former executives and members say Scientology does not want a vibrant downtown with lots of tourists around its HQ. We found 32 companies run by members of Scientology bought ~100 properties in the center of downtown. That gives the Scientology institution huge control of downtown.