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A shouting match with the mayor sheds little light on United Churches

Jan 27, 1976

by Ardith Hillard

Bizarre rumors about who those people are in Clearwater's former Ft. Harrison Hotel sparked a lively, sometimes malicious, two-hour debate on Dunedin radio stations WDCL Monday morning, but the mystery remains.

The station's Bob Snyder, Clearwater Mayor Gabriel Cazares and two representatives of United Churches of Florida, which leases the former hotel, shouted at each other during the live broadcast designed to unravel the mystery, but no one walked away satisfied.

The heat waves started in the first five minutes when Sorrel Allen, membership director of United Churches, read a statement from Southern Land Development and Leasing Corp., owner of the hotel and United Churches' landlord.

Allen had promised late last week that the statement would be an all-out attempt to explain who is involved in both organizations. But the statement, sent from New York, revealed nothing new and was extremely defensive, an attempt to put an end to some of the wilder stories circulating in Clearwater.

"We can state with complete honesty that we are not representatives of the Arabs, we are not connected to gambling interests, we are not the Mafia, nor are we Rockefeller-financed," the statement said. "We do not represent New York bankers nor do we represent the Queen of England, nor Lord Thompson of Canada."

In the course of the stormy broadcast, Allen also denied that United Churches is a non-profit front for the profit-making leasing corporation and that foreign money had been used in the purchase of the Clearwater landmark.

"The money used to purchase the hotel was good, solid, American greenbacks," the Southern Land statement said. "The money came from property investors who believe the best solution to inflation is real estate and the hotel has been leased to United Churches of Florida provided they see to its proper care, good usage and pay for its upkeep."

The message identified Southern Land as "a property investment firm" that "utilizes investment capital in the purchase and development of property."

Allen blamed the secrecy that has surrounded the changing of the guard at the Ft. Harrison on the sellers, Jack Tar Hotels. Last month an attorney for the Jack Tar company aimed the same accusation at Southern Land.

Such strange events have given rise to suspicion throughout Clearwater about the intentions of the religious group, which says it provides room, board and office space to various religious sects from all over the world.

Cazares, who left the show early saying he was not satisfied with the explanation given by Allen and his assistant, Milton Wolfe, said the citizens of Clearwater want assurances that the owners and inhabitants of the Fort Harrison are not engaged in shady activities.

"The people of Clearwater want to know what's up," Cazares said. He also repeated his objections, stated late last week, about security guards who patrol the hotel armed with mace and billy clubs.

Allen said the uniformed guards carry the devices instead of the pistols that he said used to be carried by guards during the building's use as a public hotel. He said some protection of the residents is needed, especially in light of the recent attack on an inhabitant by an armed man.

Allen was attacked broadside by Snyder and Cazares for supposedly dodging questions about the people involved in the two ventures. Firing one question after another at the steaming Allen, they accused him of everything from snubbing local labor in favor of outsiders to falsely associating United Churches of Florida with local churches.

Allen, his face contorted with anger, yelled back at Snyder at one point, calling him a liar. Several times Snyder cut off Allen's microphone, admonishing him of being antagonistic while calling his statements public-relations gobbledygook.

Allen also denied that persons who have come to the Fort Harrison to look around have been denied access to the building.

Allen hinted darkly at a conspiracy that he said he suspects against religion, United Churches and real estate values in downtown Clearwater.

He repeatedly asked Snyder for his sources of information after Snyder said chamber of commerce sources and a member of the FBI had fed him information about the group. Snyder refused but said his FBI informant has assured him that an investigation into Southern Land and United Churches is being conducted.

Allen denied knowledge of any investigations, although he admitted to knowing about a "cursory" investigation conducted by State Atty. James T. Russell that he said already had ended.

Allen also denied that employees at the Fort Harrison work both for United Churches and Southern Land, although he admitted that United Churches' Elizabeth Gablehouse had worked as a "consultant" for Southern Land in finding property.

The discussion reached a pitch when Snyder tried to force Allen to say on the air that he would make Cazares a member of United Churches' board of directors.

"I wouldn't mind the opportunity to sit in on your meetings as an ex-officio member," Cazares said, grinning into the perplexed faces of Wolfe and Allen.

"That's a silly question," Allen roared at Snyder, but later said he would consider the suggestion.