By DEBORAH O’NEIL, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 28, 2002
CLEARWATER — From arched 31-foot windows to the 1,140-seat dining room, there is much that will be grand in the Church of Scientology‘s new downtown religious center.
It will have 889 rooms, 447 windows, 42 bathrooms.
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A two-story lighted cross will perch atop the highest tower, 150 feet up.
The building even has a hefty nickname, “Super Power.”
In recent weeks, the building’s roofline and exterior have taken shape, giving Clearwater the opportunity to digest the drama of the $50-million Mediterranean Revival-style center at 215 S Fort Harrison Ave.
Opinions about the new building range from sheer wonder about its size to unease about what it means for downtown.
“It’s very impressive,” said Wolf Schueder, owner of Paparazzi’s restaurant on Cleveland Street. “I think it’s beautiful architecture.”
Clearwater Mayor Brian Aungst: “It’s going to be a big building, a nice building, in an area we’re trying to redevelop and I think it will help in that regard.”
Downtown business owner Michele Homer said she’s not sure of the building’s purpose and described it as “intimidating.”
“It makes a huge statement,” she said. “It is clear to me they own downtown and that’s not a bad thing. They’ve done more for downtown than the city itself.”
Dr. Mack Sigmon, pastor of Peace Memorial Presbyterian Church across the street, said his parishioners have been asking how the new building will affect their church.
“Obviously, it dwarfs our church. It makes us less visible,” he said. “The greatest concern I hear from my parishioners is, “Does this turn the downtown into the Scientology mecca? What about the other churches? What about businesses?’ “
Sigmon said he hopes city officials are committed to fostering economic prosperity downtown. He said he still hears people say they don’t have any reason to come downtown — that there’s nothing in downtown but Scientology.
City Commissioner Frank Hibbard said he too has heard people worry that the city is giving downtown to the Church of Scientology. But, he said, the city is still working hard on downtown revitalization.
“I haven’t given up on downtown,” he said. “We have too much potential.”
For Scientologists, the new Flag Building brings the promise of never-before available religious services. Clearwater is the spiritual headquarters for Scientology and this will be the church’s largest facility in the world.
Unlike other Scientology facilities such as the Fort Harrison Hotel and the Sandcastle, the Flag Building will not have any hotel rooms. It will be used primarily for the delivery of religious services and for office space. The building will feature 300 rooms where as many as 900 Scientologists a day can receive “auditing,” Scientology spiritual counseling.
The building is coming online during the Church of Scientology’s most rapid expansion since it arrived in Clearwater 27 years ago. In recent years, the church has added to its holdings a downtown high-rise and a 120-unit apartment complex, both of which will be used for the up to 1,000 additional staff members expected to come to Clearwater when the new building opens.
Last summer the church wrapped up $9-million of renovations to the Sandcastle retreat and the Osceola Inn, growing its hotel space to 565 rooms around downtown. When the new building is completed, 48 more hotel rooms will be available in the Fort Harrison. The church plans to convert rooms now used for religious counseling back to hotel rooms. The rooms are used by thousands of Scientologists from around the world who visit the Clearwater church.
Once those rooms are converted back to hotel units, the full Fort Harrison will be back on the property tax rolls. The new building, however, will likely be tax exempt because it will be used exclusively for religious purposes.
On average, the Flag Building will be used daily by about 1,600 students and parishioners receiving auditing along with 1,200 staffers. It can hold 3,600 people.
And at the Flag Building, Scientologists for the first time will be able to do “Super Power,” an auditing process designed to provide “full restoration of one’s perceptions,” Shaw said. Developed by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, Super Power has not been released until now, Shaw said, because the church needed to build a facility specifically designed for Super Power. The new building will include a 150-foot running track on the sixth floor, which will be used as part of Super Power.