Scientology expands in Clearwater, Florida

After a period of worldwide growth, the church is turning its attention back to expansion at its Clearwater headquarters.

CLEARWATER – A global expansion by the Church of Scientology delayed construction of a flagship building in this city it considers its spiritual headquarters, church officials say.

But after spending hundreds of millions of dollars from Madrid to Mountain View, Calif., the church is once again turning its attention to downtown Clearwater in a big way.

The church plans to finish its long-delayed Flag Building by next year, officials say. And newly revealed construction plans call for:

• Hundreds of new hotel rooms along the city’s prized waterfront.

• A major renovation of the historic Fort Harrison Hotel.

• The renovation of a 26-unit waterfront condominium, purchased on the sly, unit by unit, over the past year.

• A new 725-space parking garage.

• A six-story expansion to the church’s exclusive Sandcastle counseling retreat.

If it’s all built, the church would have 334 more hotel rooms for its members on the bluffs overlooking Clearwater Harbor. That’s nearly double the number of rooms the church owns in downtown Clearwater. The extra rooms were needed, said church spokesman Ben Shaw, to accommodate increasing demand for services at Flag.

“That, fundamentally, is our problem,” Shaw said. “We need to expand.”

City officials say they are pleased the church plans to finish the Flag Building, but they have heard it before.

When the so-called Super Power Building project began in November 1998, it was supposed to be finished in 2002. By mid 2002, the Mediterranean Revival-style edifice looked nearly finished on the outside. Church leaders promised a late 2003 grand opening.

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But in early 2003, the work stopped. And the building, which is supposed to introduce a new level of training for Scientologists called Super Power, sat vacant.

In late 2004, Shaw vowed work would resume in early 2005, and he said residents would soon see scaffolding around the Fort Harrison in preparation for a massive renovation of the 75-year-old downtown building.

Why the delays? Shaw said the building has undergone two major redesigns. Scientology also has undertaken a building spurt internationally, spending “literally hundreds of millions of dollars” this year alone.

In the past three years, the church has built churches in New York, Madrid, Johannesburg, South Africa, Buffalo, N.Y., San Francisco, Los Gatos, Calif., Mountain View, Calif., and Tampa. Last year, the church purchased buildings encompassing nearly 1-million square feet in 18 cities worldwide.

That growth has diverted some of the church’s attention, Shaw said. And it has forced church management to redesign the Flag Building. Because Clearwater is the worldwide spiritual headquarters of the church, Shaw said, the building must keep pace with the quality of construction at other new facilities.

“This is the mecca,” he said. “It needs to have that feel accordingly.”

Now, Shaw said, the focus is squarely on Clearwater. In mid February, the church hired Gensler, one of the largest and most respected architectural firms in the country, to take over most of the local projects.

It’s about time, said Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard.

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He said he’s grown tired of residents asking him what’s happening with the Flag Building. Though beautiful on the outside, the building had become an eyesore, surrounded by dirt and a chain-link fence, Hibbard said. He arranged a meeting with city and church officials several weeks ago for a status report. Hibbard said church officials appeared committed to making it happen. But after years of delays and prior broken promises, he is cautious.

“Show me,” he said.

Shaw said meaningful progress is being made on all fronts:

Revised site plans for the exterior of the Flag Building will be submitted to city officials today. The project is expected to be completed at the same time as the Fort Harrison renovation, by the end of 2007.

Last week, the church completed construction documents to renovate the landmark Fort Harrison Hotel into a five-star hotel, and work will go out to bid in several weeks. Along with 220 rooms for visiting Scientologists, it will include three public restaurants and a spa.

Last week, the church sought bids to renovate the waterfront Oak Cove building, which has sat vacant since before the church purchased it in 2001. Although the church had intended to use the building for staff housing, the new plan calls for a 260-room hotel for visiting Scientologists.

The Oak Cove building is scheduled to be completed in February 2007.

The church has hired R.R. Simmons of Tampa to design and build a 725-space parking garage on Franklin Street, next to the new Flag Building. The four-story garage is nearly twice as big as originally planned and will integrate the Mediterranean Revival style of the rest of the church’s campus. Work is expected to begin in June and be finished in April 2007.

About a year ago, the church began quietly snapping up units in the Belvedere, a 26-unit condo on the water, immediately north of the Sandcastle . Of the 25 owners, 22 were Scientologists, Shaw said. The church first bought two of the units from church nonmembers, anonymously, through a real estate agent. Then Scientology officials went to church members and negotiated the purchase of their condos. In all, the church paid $7-million for the property.

Some church members were paid with in-kind church services, which can run hundreds of thousands of dollars for upper levels of training.

The building, which will become known as the Ocean View, will be renovated into luxury hotel rooms for guests of the Sandcastle. The Sandcastle offers upper levels of Scientology training available only in Clearwater, and Tom Cruise is among those who have studied there. Members often stay for months.

Last year, the church paid $2.2-million to purchase properties across the street from the Belvedere. It plans to build a six-story building to act as an expansion of the Sandcastle. No date has yet been set to build it, or to renovate the Belvedere.
[Last modified April 25, 2006, 22:37:54]

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
St. Petersburg Times, USA
Apr. 25, 2006
Robert Farley, Times Staff Writer

Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday April 26, 2006.
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