In an article published on Saturday, Tony Ortega reported that Scientology is pushing to open the new Ideal Org in Orlando soon. I decided to take a look at the numbers behind the building and behind Scientology in Orlando. This Ideal Org is doomed to failure because of the small number of members in Orlando and the location of the facility, even further off the beaten path than most new Scientology buildings.
Once we’ve gotten a handle on the numbers, we’ll look at whether this particular Ideal Org might herald a change in the Ideal Org strategy.
Scientology purchased the building at 6770 Lake Ellenor Dr. in Orlando in February 2016. It’s located on a relatively low-trafficked street with a significant number of low- and mid-rise offices. There is retail presence a couple of blocks away on Orange Blossom Trail, but it tends to be big-box retailers and businesses clearly catering to locals and not to tourists.
The facility is not terribly close to the major resorts; it’s about 17 miles from the entrance to the Epcot Resorts area at Disney World, the area with the fastest drive from the new building. It’s a bit closer to Universal Studios, about 7 miles from their resort. The position of this facility on a side street is utterly devoid of any businesses that could possibly stimulate foot traffic or of discovery. The only traffic down Lake Ellenor Dr. is likely to be employees or customers looking for a single particular business. They’re unlikely to be browsing for other businesses to visit. In other words, there’s even less of a likelihood that Scientology would be a drop-in destination than the recently-opened Mountain View (California) Ideal Org, located at the end of a dead-end street in a similar industrial park.
Scientology paid $1.65 million to buy the property at auction, including the auction site commission. They were apparently the only bidder; the article linked here says that they had been interested in the property for several years. Interestingly, according to the county appraiser, the building had sold for $3.74 million in 1996. That’s quite a drop in value in a city whose population has grown by 56% in that 20-year period; usually, real estate values are somewhat correlated with population growth.
The building contains 48,000 rentable square feet, which means that Scientology paid approximately $35 per Net Rentable Square Foot (NRSF). That’s dirt cheap. The appraiser’s property card estimates that the replacement cost of the building would be about $7.3 million, or around $150 a square foot, consistent with estimates we’ve seen for costs of new mid-rise office buildings. So they’re basically getting a building for 80% off of new construction.
I was unable to find out whether the building was empty at the time of purchase, or whether Scientology bought out the current tenants. If the latter, they probably gave up about $15 per square foot per year in rent, or about $1.4 million in rent from the time of the building purchase to today, plus whatever the buyout incentives may have been.
The building will need significant repair and refurbishing given that the shell was built in 1974, and is nearing the end of useful life. It is possible that the exterior could need more work than just a new coat of paint.
I would estimate that Scientology is likely to put in another $100 to $150 per square foot in refurbishments to the facility, or about $4.8 million to $7.2 million, based on estimates we’ve seen for other Scientology projects. That would bring the cult’s total expenditure for the building to around $9 million, using the midpoint of the range I gave for refurbishment budgets, and given the $1.4 million estimate of foregone rent if they kicked tenants out.
Scientology’s Claims About the Impact of the New Building
The new Org is about 20 miles from the campus of the University of Central Florida, not the 10 miles claimed in a Scientology poster in Tony’s article. The chances that any of the 66,000 UCF students end up anywhere near this building in their four-year tenure at the school, is essentially zero. And it’s not as if the new org will be a great hub for recruiters to go out into the community to sign up new public clamoring to exorcise invisible dead space cooties from their skin. One can only imagine how successful a cadre of sweaty, doughy body routers in their threadbare polyester uniforms will be at signing up recruits as they attempt to “body route” in the center of campus.
It’s also about an hour away (53 miles/90 km) from NASA’s main building at Cape Canaveral. The odds that any NASA engineer is likely to wander into Scientology’s org are only slightly greater than the odds that Scientology would be invited into the Cape Canaveral facility to recruit.
Particularly amusing is the idea that rocket scientists will be interested in the “REAL rules of Theta & MEST.” I seem to recall that noted nuclear physicist L. Ron Hubbard had predicted that man would never be able to pass through the Van Allen belt in order to achieve Earth orbit, only a few months before the NASA team at this very same facility did exactly that. So I wonder what Scientology knows about MEST that they think the folks at NASA would be interested in learning.
Scientology’s Current Presence in Orlando
It’s unlikely that the Orlando org will do any meaningful recruiting; it’s out-of-the-way location eliminates any chance that Scientology will even get lucky by someone stumbling in lost. So could this facility be present just to service existing Orlando public?
Based on my tabulation of responses from the “Stop Leah” petition circulated by the cult aggressively in the summer of 2017, there were 3 of 1,679 responses submitted by people in the Orlando area. Applying this proportion to a global Scientology “public” estimate of around 16,000 (excluding staff and Sea Org), you get approximately 30 Scientologists in Orlando.
If that estimate is correct, then the cult is spending $300,000 per existing public to support them. To determine whether this is a good investment, you would look at the “lifetime customer value” (LCV) that you would reap from the average customer before you lose them. A cell phone company might compute the LCV as follows: the average customer spends an average of $58.33 per month and stays with us for an average of 64 months (many switch at the end of a year, others stay for 20 years), so the LCV is $3,733.12.
Once you estimate the LCV, you can look at what you spend to attract and to service those customers to see if it makes sense. I’d estimate the lifetime value of the average Scientology member who has been on service for more than a year (in other words, someone who’s serious about being a cult member, and not someone who takes a couple intro courses) at about $250,000 — that’s an estimate of the total cost to get to OT VIII discounted back by the fact that over half of those who have been on service for a year will not get there.
So it is ludicrously inefficient for Scientology to spend $300,000 per customer when their LCV is $250,000. In most professional service organizations, rent is typically about 5% of revenues (retailers are quite a bit higher). So for Scientology’s real estate spend to fall in line with norms for consulting-type service businesses, either they would need to have 600 public currently “on lines” instead of 30, or they would need to have an LCV of $5,000,000.
Scientology’s Orlando Ideal Org is doomed to be even more empty than most. The San Fernando Valley org is at least located on a busy street where it may get occasional foot traffic. But this org, located on an empty street in an aging industrial park located a long way from any potential customers, is likely to prevent recruiting. The recent Mountain View org appears to be similarly isolated.
But the Orlando org may also be signaling a slight shift in strategy. In the past, Miscavige has actually had a reasonably good eye for interesting properties with good bones and some degree of charm. The fact that he’s buying buildings “on the cheap” these days may be a tacit admission that donations are not going to be sufficient to buy the high-quality building shells that the cult bought in prior years.
The IAS slush fund has to pick up the slack when donations have dried up, so of course, Miscavige will be as stingy with these funds as possible. It will be interesting to see if future Ideal Org building purchases will be of properties that are trading well below the average dollars/NRSF of their markets.
It’s particularly interesting to see that an inexpensive building in Orlando, 90 minutes down the freeway from the Clearwater public, was picked because the Clearwater public didn’t respect “command intention” enough to donate the relatively small amount to get the building done. I estimate there are 1,700 Scientologists in the greater Tampa area, so only $1,000 per public there would have been enough to buy the building; that’s a very attainable amount. A couple of whales donating could easily have gotten the job done. But it likely was not.
Second, the fact that the cult was willing to spend up to put together an Ideal Org in an area with so few Scientologists makes me wonder whether there are some whales (potentially even in Clearwater) who are driving Miscavige to finish this Ideal Org. Pressure from his biggest customers might explain why Miscavige may be in the early stages of changing strategy from buying expensive and interesting buildings to buying sub-par properties to conserve IAS reserves.