CLEARWATER – To the unfamiliar, downtown Clearwater might be mistaken for a naval port.
Masses of uniformed people walk the streets, wearing belted green, navy or russet pants and crisp white or pale blue shirts. They move in purposeful strides, with the quickened footsteps of people with a mission.
Such has been the predominant scene in this waterfront city since the Church of Scientology secretly bought the old Fort Harrison Hotel in 1975 and later made it the group’s worldwide spiritual headquarters, shocking residents.
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Today, the church has become an indelible, if still mysterious, part of Clearwater. Yet opinions differ on the extent to which the church’s strong presence has changed downtown.
Although some locals credit Scientologists with cleaning up Clearwater’s once-decrepit urban core, others say non-Scientologist retailers and passers-by avoid downtown because of the church’s dominance.
“Their economic impact has been positive because they’ve brought financial energy to areas that were blighted,” said Lee Arnold, a prominent Clearwater-based real estate developer.
Former Mayor Rita Garvey, a longtime Scientology critic, said the militaristic garb of church members discourages non-Scientologists from shopping downtown.
“The majority of people you see downtown are in uniform, and the general public does not necessarily have a reason to go downtown,” Garvey said. “Other than the library or the courthouse or the banks, there’s no reason for the general public to go downtown.”
At first glance, it appears downtown Clearwater should thrive.
The third-largest city in the Tampa Bay area, it sits on a bluff overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway. It has the most popular beach in the area, drawing visitors from throughout the region and beyond.
Yet many of those people, and even those who live in the city, rarely shop or dine downtown.
As with many cities nationwide, the 1970s brought suburban shopping malls. Clearwater Mall opened in 1974 and Countryside Mall a year later, drawing people away from shops and restaurants downtown.
Even before then, though, downtown was ailing after Sunshine Mall opened just a few blocks away in 1968. Several downtown retailers, including JCPenney, moved to the mall.
“Sunshine Mall was built too close to downtown, so downtown started to die,” said Mike Sanders, Clearwater’s leading historian. “Then the Scientologists came in. Into the ’80s, you still had national chains downtown, but they began to be replaced by Scientology-related businesses. The whole complexion changed. Now, downtown is kind of in a transition period.”
Arnold, however, said much of the changes downtown have had little, if anything, to do with the church.
“It’s gone through a series of migrations, of people in and out and businesses in and out, that are not necessarily correlated to the Scientologists,” said Arnold, citing as an example last year’s relocation of the 82-year-old Calvary Baptist Church from downtown to east Clearwater.
The next few years will determine whether downtown will come back, Arnold and others said.
The city is spending millions on streetscaping and other infrastructure improvements to make the area more pedestrian-friendly and to act as a catalyst for long-awaited downtown redevelopment.
“When some of these condo projects are occupied, we’ll start to see the retail come back to support the residential that is going to be built,” Arnold said.
At the same time, Sanders said, the city will have to find a way to “contain” the church, the largest property owner downtown.
“The profile of the new resident remains to be seen,” Sanders said. “Right now, it’s a lot of Scientologists.”
Some longtime merchants blame much of downtown’s problems on something as basic as a lack of on-street parking.
“If you don’t provide for more readily available parking, you will never see anybody come downtown,” said George Kelly, owner of the Downtown Newsstand, a fixture on Cleveland Street for nearly two decades. “I don’t care if there are Scientologists here or not.”
Asked whether some people shun downtown because of the uniformed presence of church members, Kelly, who has been critical of the church in the past, said, “They’re not a help.”
Nor is the mystery that surrounds an organization that most people know about only because of its affiliation with celebrities such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta.
“They’ve been here for 30 years now,” Kelly said. “I defy you or anybody else in this whole community to find a single person who’s not a Scientologist who can give you a basic understanding of what the hell they’re here for, what the hell they’re all about.”
Lillian Trickel, who has run Trickels Jewelers since 1945, said the church’s presence has had little effect on her Cleveland Street business.
“They just don’t buy too much jewelry, you know.”
Sidebar: Scientology In Clearwater
1975: The Church of Scientology secretly buys the old Fort Harrison Hotel downtown.
1977: Documents seized by the FBI lay out a church plan to take over the city and discredit enemies, including then-Mayor Gabe Cazares.
1979: An estimated 3,000 people descend on city hall to protest the church coming to town.
1982: The city commission holds five days of hearings about Scientology with allegations by former Scientologists and others that the church is a cult. Among the critics testifying is Ron DeWolf, formerly L. Ron Hubbard Jr., the son of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. The church, through its attorney, criticizes the hearings and declines to participate.
1984: Clearwater passes an ordinance that officials say is aimed at reducing fraud by any group claiming to be charitable. The Church of Scientology wages an 11-year legal battle against the ordinance before getting it repealed.
1993: The IRS ends its decades-old battle with Scientology and grants it tax-exempt status on properties used for religious activity.
1996: The Tampa Tribune reports that Clearwater police are investigating the 1995 death of Scientologist Lisa McPherson while under the church’s care. Pinellas State Attorney Bernie McCabe later charged the church with two felonies. The charges were dropped after Medical Examiner Joan Wood changed her opinion about the cause of McPherson’s death.
2004: The church and McPherson’s estate reach a private settlement in a civil case.
2006: The seven-story Flag Building in downtown Clearwater, Scientology’s future religious center across from its headquarters at the Fort Harrison Hotel, remains unopened seven years after construction began.