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Scientology's upgrades to boost taxes in Pinellas

CLEARWATER — Marble floors with patterned inlay. Plush carpeting. Mahogany paneling. Decorated crown moldings. Marble sinks. Hi-def TVs. A 32-station fitness center. An elegant restaurant.

Luxury touches abound inside downtown Clearwater's newest waterfront hotel, the gleaming 240-room Oak Cove.

But don't rush to pack your bags. Oak Cove is just for Scientologists.

Recently opened after a $26-million renovation, the hotel is Scientology's newest lodging option in Clearwater, the church's international spiritual headquarters.

Oak Cove also is the first in a series of expansion projects that will push the church's inventory of hotel rooms in downtown Clearwater to 725.

In all, Scientology says it will spend $120-million over the next 15 months adding guest rooms and also completing — finally — its Flag Mecca Building, often called the Super Power center, which has sat unfinished and vacant for five years.

The construction surge is sure to increase Scientology's already distinct Clearwater campus. It also will increase something less obvious — the church's property tax bill.

Scientology course and counseling rooms and training centers are tax exempt. As renovation work progresses, they will be moved out of the Oak Cove and the better known Fort Harrison Hotel and into the Mecca Building, according to church officials.

As top-to-bottom hotels for visiting Scientologists, both the Oak Cove and the Fort Harrison, along with a soon-to-be converted condo complex on downtown's northern edge, then would be fully taxed, increasing Scientology's annual property tax payment. Last year, the payment was $897,559.

But as church activities are transferred to the Mecca Building, tax exemptions will move there, too. The massive building, six stories tall and encompassing a full city bock, is expected to be completely off the tax rolls.

Millions spent

Scientology has so many Clearwater projects teed up, it has hired a project manager — a global real estate firm, the Staubach Co., founded by former NFL great Roger Staubach. Here is a rundown:

• Oak Cove. Regular rooms — a sitting room plus a bedroom — go for $200. The splurge stay is in one of the 13th floor penthouses, each with large windows offering drink-it-in views of Clearwater Harbor. Rack rate up there: $650.

For now, just half the rooms are open to guests. The others are temporarily being used for Scientology courses because, just across the street, Scientology's signature Clearwater property, the 80-year-old Fort Harrison Hotel, is getting a makeover. The church bought Oak Cove, a former residence hall for seniors, in 2001 for $5-million.

• Fort Harrison Hotel. Renovations will total $30-million, church officials say. Work started in mid April. The spacious lobby will get a makeover, as will the hotel's 220 guest rooms. A 2,000-square-foot "Presidential Suite'' will be on the 10th floor, boasting a view of "the Scientology panorama" in Clearwater. The remodeled Fort Harrison will have three restaurants, from deli-style to white tablecloth, all open to the public. Work is expected to take about a year.

• Mecca Building. Strangely, Scientology spent $40-million building the exterior of this huge building, then left the interior unfinished for five years. The Mediterranean-revival shell is immediately east of the Fort Harrison. The church plans to spend $45-million on the interior, with work starting this summer.

A first floor atrium will display statues and other exhibits explaining Scientology principles. Upper floors will have hundreds of course rooms. A prototype, built by church woodworkers and accented with portholes and other nautical touches, sits on one floor, surrounded by bare concrete.

Upper floors will house special equipment, developed by the church and designed to heighten one's perceptions and provide "super powers'' (hence the building's nickname, the Super Power center).

The building sat unfinished for so long because repeated design changes stalled interior work, said Tommaso Latini, senior project manager with Gensler, an international architectural firm. But drawings are complete now, he said. "In the end, the delays were well worth it," Latini said. "They have something that is more functional and appropriate than if they had done it five years ago and then had to remodel it."

• Ocean View. Formerly the Belvedere condos north of downtown, this seven-story building will be remade into 23 upscale, waterfront units. It's just north of Scientology's Sandcastle retreat, where members go for high-level Scientology training. The Ocean View will be for extended stays — six months to a year or longer. Renovation costs are estimated at $4-million to $6-million. The church bought it in 2006 for $7.8-million.

• Sandcastle expansion. Once Ocean View is finished, the church plans to build a six-story, 60,000-square-foot building kitty-corner to the Sandcastle, which has become overtaxed, church officials say.

• L. Ron Hubbard Hall. The final piece of the church's Clearwater expansion may not be undertaken for a few years. Planned is a seven-story theater with more seats than Ruth Eckerd Hall.

"The Oak Cove was a big milestone in the process," said Bob Wright, the Scientology staffer overseeing the downtown construction. "It opened up the Fort Harrison to start (renovations there). We're obviously very excited about getting all these projects rolling."

Scientology will have more than 2-million square feet of buildings downtown when the work is finished. Its portfolio of overnight accommodations will range from the tony Oak Cove and Fort Harrison hotels to the more modest, $60-a-night Yachtsman motel on Cleveland Street.

Substantial increase

Scientology's signature Fort Harrison Hotel actually has been just part hotel. Much of it has been devoted to Scientology instruction and church offices. That resulted in 73 percent of it being tax exempt.

Current renovations will convert those exempt spaces back to hotel rooms and other guest amenities, making the building fully taxable, according to officials.

The Oak Cove also will pay more in taxes. It currently is assigned a just market value of $6.4-million. But its $26-million upgrade will push up that assessment "substantially," said Pam Dubov, Pinellas County's chief deputy property appraiser.

The Pinellas Property Appraiser's Office fought the church for years over whether Scientology properties deserved tax exempt status. They settled the issue in the early 1990s after the IRS ruled Scientology was entitled to exempt treatment as a church.

In determining which portions of church facilities were used for religious purposes, county staffers toured and inspected church properties and pored over building plans.

Areas used as a hotel, restaurant or swimming pool, for example, remained taxable. Other spaces used for Scientology training and church support functions, such as the former Clearwater Bank building, which is used mainly as a cafeteria for staff, are tax exempt.

Robert Farley can be reached at
rfarley@sptimes.com. or 727-893-8603.

Scientology's upgrades to boost taxes in Pinellas 05/02/08 [Last modified: Friday, May 9, 2008 11:45am]
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