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Scientology church gives Clearwater's Fort Harrison Hotel a $40M makeover

CLEARWATER — Marble floors from Spain. Gold leaf painted on elaborate crown moldings. Richly colored carpets from South Africa. Decorative plaster cornices. A 12,000-crystal chandelier for the ballroom.

The Church of Scientology is reopening its lavishly renovated Fort Harrison Hotel after pouring $40 million into upgrading it. The 82-year-old landmark has been polished into an elegant hotel for visiting Scientologists. It has adopted the same grand, stately look as iconic Florida hotels like the Breakers in Palm Beach or St. Petersburg's Renaissance Vinoy Resort.

Now attention turns to Scientology's enormous building across the street that has sat vacant and unfinished for six years, mystifying the public.

The Flag Building, nicknamed the "Super Power" building, is a seven-story, 380,000-square-foot empty shell that encompasses a whole city block. The church gets fined $250 a day for not bringing it up to code, and the fines now total $245,000.

Numerous promises to finish the building have come and gone, but church officials insist that this time it really is next on their to-do list. At this point, church architects and Clearwater building officials say they're going over some final details.

"We're ready," said Scientology spokesman Tommy Davis. "All the money has been put aside, and the plans are in place. As soon as we get the go-ahead from the city, we'll begin."

The Fort Harrison's makeover is the latest in a series of construction projects that will give the church an inventory of more than 800 hotel rooms around downtown Clearwater. It and the Flag Building are intended to add to the church's presence in the city it considers its spiritual mecca, a destination for church members from 66 countries who travel here for high-level Scientology counseling.

The Fort Harrison

The scaffolding that shrouded the 11-story building for a year has come down, and the 220-room hotel has reopened. Nightly rates range from $150 for a standard room to $1,500 for the presidential suite.

Built in 1927 as Clearwater's first skyscraper, the hotel was a local focal point for decades. It was vacant by the time Scientology covertly bought it under an assumed name in 1975, sparking years of hostility between the church and the city.

The church has gained greater acceptance over the last 15 years or so, to the point where many local bigwigs felt comfortable attending a reception at the hotel Saturday night. But the church's own research a few years ago found that many in the area still don't know much about Scientology and view it as a strange cult.

To renovate the Fort Harrison, the church gutted it, tearing out plumbing, wiring, floors, walls, elevators and unsightly window air-conditioning units.

Now the redesigned lobby opens up to the third floor, where a pedestrian bridge crosses Fort Harrison Avenue to the unfinished Flag Building. A new marble staircase leads up there.

The Crystal Ballroom on the 10th and 11th floors, once a fashionable spot for high school proms, has been completely rebuilt and its patterned wooden floor restored, said Bob Wright, a Scientology staffer overseeing construction.

Church staffers made thousands of custom wood and plaster moldings at Scientology's local wood mill and workshop.

The hotel has three restaurants — none of which will be open to the public, despite what the church previously said. The ballroom won't be rented out for weddings either.

And the hotel won't be hiring because it is staffed by members of the Sea Org, the legion of uniformed church staffers who dedicate their lives to Scientology.

Members of the general public can walk into the lobby for a look, but ultimately this hotel is for Scientologists only.

"This is a religious retreat," Davis said. "That isn't to say that people can't come in and look at the beautiful building. It's open to the community, but it's not open for business."

'Super Power'

Construction on the Flag Building began in 1999, and it was supposed to open in 2002. Work stopped in 2003 and has been at a standstill ever since.

One of the county's largest buildings, it is stuccoed, trimmed and painted on the outside, but empty on the inside. A big hole in the building's northwest corner draws curious glances from drivers on Alt. U.S. 19.

Clearwater officials get asked about it all the time.

"People say, 'My gosh, why is it taking so long?' The public doesn't understand the church's sense of priorities — why they would leave such a large building unfinished for an unusual amount of time," said City Manager Bill Horne.

"We look forward to them getting it complete," said Mayor Frank Hibbard.

In 2006, Clearwater started fining Scientology $250 a day for failing to bring its building up to code. When it's finally finished, the city's code enforcement board will review the fines and decide whether to forgive any.

City officials get asked why they're not taking harsher measures. Horne said the city treats the church like any other landowner: "Our building codes and state statutes give property owners quite a bit of leeway to get a structure completed."

Scientology's explanation for the unfinished building: It repeatedly redesigned the interior, and it embarked on an international building spree. Recently in Clearwater, it has chosen to work on the Oak Cove and Fort Harrison hotels instead.

The church says the Flag Building will eventually house the bulk of Scientology's religious services in Clearwater. It will have about 300 rooms for Scientology's core practice of "auditing."

The building is nicknamed "Super Power" because it will be the only place in the world where a highly classified Scientology program called Super Power will be offered. Its upper floors will house special equipment that church officials say is designed to heighten one's perceptions. The specifics are secret; like much of Scientology training, details aren't revealed until one pays to take the course.

Wright said the building has cost about $40 million so far, and the church expects to spend $50 million finishing its elaborate interior. He leafed through 800 sheets of construction drawings for it. "It's been planned to within an inch of its life," he said.

Times staff writer Joe Childs contributed to this report. Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4160.

Scientology's taxes

The Fort Harrison Hotel's renovation will increase Scientology's property tax bill. Two-thirds of the church's property in Clearwater is tax-exempt because it's used for religious purposes, but Scientology's hotels and restaurants are taxed. Last year Scientology was charged nearly $800,000 in taxes on nearly $108 million worth of Pinellas County property.

A building time line

1975: Scientology secretly establishes its spiritual headquarters at the Fort Harrison Hotel, sparking years of controversy.

1995: Scientologist Lisa McPherson dies after being in the care of Fort Harrison staffers for 17 days. This leads to felony charges against Scientology, later dropped, and a wrongful-death lawsuit, later settled.

1999: Church breaks ground on Flag Building.

2003: Construction of Flag Building stops.

2006: City of Clearwater begins fining Scientology for not bringing Flag Building up to code.

2007-2008: Church renovates Oak Cove into a waterfront hotel and moves church operations from the Fort Harrison to Oak Cove.

2008: Church begins renovating Fort Harrison.

2009: Church finishes Fort Harrison and submits final plans for Flag Building.

Scientology church gives Clearwater's Fort Harrison Hotel a $40M makeover 03/21/09 [Last modified: Monday, March 23, 2009 8:52pm]
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