The developer who bought up and then rebuilt much of Santa Ana’s downtown is negotiating to sell one of his prized historic buildings to the Church of Scientology.
Mike Harrah spent $11 million to restore the four-story building, which features three theaters with ornate moldings, painted ceilings and enormous candelabra. Reborn as the Santa Ana Performing Arts and Event Center, it was home to a weekend cabaret and a restaurant and was seen as further proof that the city’s urban core had been revived.
Harrah said he needed to sell the former Masonic Temple to raise money for the construction of a 37-story glass office tower, which would be the tallest building in Orange County. Construction, expected to cost $86 million, is set to begin in December.
In all, Harrah owns 56 buildings in downtown Santa Ana and has set the standard for revitalizing the city’s aging downtown.
Marie Murillo, a spokeswoman for the Church of Scientology of Orange County, said the church intended to move into the former Masonic Temple and have the facility operating as a church within six months. The church, she said, spent nearly two years seeking a unique building.
Murillo said the church would move from Tustin, where its facility was deemed too small. The Tustin facility is the only Scientology church in Orange County, though there are missions in Newport Beach and Costa Mesa that offer training, counseling and other services.
News of the church’s arrival in downtown Santa Ana received a lukewarm response.
“It’s the last thing we need. I’m very sorry that we have a cult moving into town,” said Tim Rush, vice president of the Santa Ana Historical Preservation Society. “It gives people another reason to laugh at Santa Ana.”
“Does this mean Tom Cruise is coming to town?” asked Mike Macres, referring to one of the church’s best-known members. Macres is the owner of Macres Florist, which has been in town 71 years.
Murillo said she believed the church had a lot to offer Santa Ana and expected the facility would draw several hundred people a week to the downtown area.
“We believe that we have a lot we can bring into this city to contribute to make it an even more prosperous city. The church does a lot of work in the community in areas such as handling illiteracy and criminality, anti-drug campaigns and human rights,” Murillo said in a written response to questions from The Times.
Harrah makes no apologies for selling the 1930s-era building on North Sycamore Street. He said he had no choice.
“It’s either rob some 7-Elevens or sell some buildings,” Harrah said in jest. “Since I don’t look good in a [jail jumpsuit], I’m selling some buildings.”
Harrah said the church had been “very professional in their business terms and practice.” He said he knew little about Scientology but that “in America, everyone can have the opportunity to do what they want and believe what they want. That’s the beauty of this country.”
Over the years, the Church of Scientology has opened churches in several historic buildings, Murillo said. In 2004, it opened a church on historic Main Street in downtown Buffalo, N.Y., and the year before that, it restored a 1909 building in San Francisco, she said.
Harrah says the church’s experience occupying historic building shows “they are not going to paint it pink and green or something.”
Harrah, who owns art galleries, restaurants, parking lots and office buildings in downtown Santa Ana, has worked to create a restaurant and arts district in the area. Last year, shortly after closing the restaurant Athena, he opened two other nearby bistros. Original Mike’s includes a display of antique cars and features live music. He also opened the upscale Ambrosia inside OC Pavilion, another structure he bought. It features a 500-seat theater.
But the revived Masonic Temple never drew crowds. The structure had stood empty for 17 years and once was slated to be an indoor flea market. It was marked to be razed at one point.
After Harrah restored it, “everyone said they were going to use the building but they didn’t,” Harrah said. “I can’t carry [the mortgage payments] forever. We tried a lot of stuff, but it’s been very difficult.”
The church rented space in the building for events and then offered to buy it, Harrah said.