CLEARWATER — The Church of Scientology, long on the fringe of the Clearwater community, will roll out the red carpet at its Fort Harrison Hotel tonight, staging a black tie gala for the area’s power elite.
And while several notables sent regrets, many others are going.
Church officials expect a full house of 500 — the guests mixing with Scientologists from here and elsewhere. Tonight’s party ranks as another indicator Scientology is gaining acceptance in a community historically suspicious of the church, if not hostile.
Clearly pleased by the number of acceptances, Scientologists say their volunteerism and other civic efforts are making a difference.
“You turn a corner and try to make things go for the better,” said church spokesman Ben Shaw. “We should be able to improve things from this point on. … There’s no need to look back.”
Among those attending are politicians and civic leaders who years ago would have had serious reservations about wining and dining with Scientologists.
State Sen. Jack Latvala and his wife, Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala, plan to go. Pinellas Sheriff Everett Rice will attend. So will Clearwater Mayor Brian Aungst. Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark is going. So, too are leaders from the Clearwater YMCA and the local branch of the NAACP.
Clearwater businessman Phil Henderson and his wife, Dunedin City Commissioner Janet Henderson, a candidate for state representative, will go and write a check for their dinners.
“As recently as 10 years ago, I don’t think a lot of people would come to the event, or even consider coming,” Henderson said. “But they (Scientologists) have changed their ways.”
The event celebrates the 75th anniversary of the church’s Fort Harrison Hotel, a Clearwater landmark that is a spiritual retreat for Scientologists. Getting a chance to see the venerable hotel is what prompted many to say yes.
“I have talked to a lot of elected officials and politicians who are going,” Rice said. “The church is trying to reach into the community and show off the facility. They’re just trying to be good citizens.”
The party also has generated quite a buzz. Promised is “an evening of dining and entertainment like you’ve never before experienced.”
And, of course, the question is on everyone’s lips: Will Scientology’s celebrities be there?
Church organizers are hush-hush.
Bennetta Slaughter, chairwoman of the celebration, did say, when pushed, that John Travolta and Tom Cruise are filming elsewhere.
What about Isaac Hayes? Jenna Elfman? Kirstie Alley?
“We have to make the anticipation continue,” Shaw quipped. “I can’t tell you.”
Jazz legend Chick Corea, who lives in Clearwater, will be there, Shaw allowed.
Scientology’s leader, David Miscavige, who is based in Los Angeles, could be there. “He’s invited,” was all Shaw would reveal.
With valet service, an open bar, buffet and sit-down dinner with several menu choices, a live musical show and a complimentary brochure commemorating the hotel, the retail cost of the gala could be as much as $400 a person, estimated Gregory Snow, president of Tampa Bay’s Best Publications and Productions, which publishes a wedding and party planning magazine.
“That’s first class,” Snow said. “It could be between $100,000 and $200,000.”
The guest list, which the church refused to release, includes local government, political, religious, cultural, business and community service leaders, said Slaughter, a Clearwater businesswoman active in the Clearwater chamber and numerous civic projects.
“I know all these people,” said Slaughter, whose business, AMC Publishing, won a business of the year award from the chamber last year. “I work with these people. We’re no strangers to them. I don’t know why they wouldn’t come.”
In past years, it has been a much different story.
The church tried sponsoring a political forum at the Fort Harrison in 1992, Susan Latvala recalled, and she and other candidates struggled with the decision whether to attend. “Do you think we should go? It’s Scientology,” she said they asked one another.
Of the 95 candidates invited, 17 showed up.
“There were a handful of us there,” Latvala said. “(Others) said they couldn’t go, they had a conflict. What was so weird about it was it was at 9 at night.”
Back then, Latvala didn’t know much about the church, she said. Now, Scientologists belong to many of the same civic groups she does.
“I really don’t think of it as the church,” Latvala said. “They are out in the community being citizens. … They are involved with nonprofit organizations that do good things. They give money to nonprofits and charities.”
Latvala, though, will be the only Pinellas County commissioner there. Commissioner Karen Seel — her son has a dance. Commissioner John Morroni — it’s his son’s birthday.
Clearwater businessman and community leader Alan Bomstein has a conflict. So do Clearwater City Commissioners Ed Hart and Bill Jonson. New Pinellas County Administrator Steve Spratt and longtime Clearwater police Chief Sid Klein sent regrets.
St. Petersburg Times editors also sent their regrets. The church is not allowing the Times to send a reporter and photographer to cover the event.
Clearwater City Commissioners Whitney Gray and Hoyt Hamilton plan to attend. Hamilton said he is reimbursing the church $90, the price quoted to him for two dinners.
“I didn’t want anyone to get the impression I was there on the church’s dime,” Hamilton said. “My attendance is strictly the opportunity to go back and revisit the site of my younger days in Clearwater.”
Numerous city employees were invited but have been told they can attend only the reception and not the dinner because of a city ordinance limiting gifts. That’s what City Manager Bill Horne will do.
Assistant City Manager Garry Brumback, who also plans to go, said Scientologists are some of the city’s best volunteers.
“I think they’re making genuine efforts to reach out and be good citizens,” he said. “This is but one example. They’ve got quite a hill to climb. The history of the organization in the city of Clearwater is not all that glowing, but the current folks over there have worked hard to live that down.”