CLEARWATER — Amid tight security and with their "cathedral" brightly lighted, thousands of Scientologists gathered in downtown Clearwater Friday night for the first in a series of events leading up to the dedication of the church's Flag Building on Sunday.
Dressed in evening wear, church members stood in long lines waiting to clear a checkpoint and be admitted to a giant tent for an evening of presentations hosted by the Church of Scientology's leader, David Miscavige.
The tent, with a capacity of 5,500 people, was covered with banners announcing the "Golden Age of Tech II." Golden Age of Tech I, released in 1996, was a package of revisions to Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard's teachings, which he called "tech."
Spotlights turned heavenward sliced beams of light across the sky as limousines deposited passengers dressed in black tie and evening gowns. The church transformed previously vacant downtown lots into an elegant event venue with potted ficus trees, outdoor carpeting, food booths and bright lights.
Church security teams lined fences surrounding the tent and adjacent areas and Clearwater police had a heavy presence. There was no sign of problems as the evening progressed.
Tonight, church leaders and members will convene in the tent again for a second presentation. They are scheduled to dedicate the new Flag Building at 1 p.m. Sunday.
Jerry Downey, 55, who moved to the city five months ago, was relaxing at Tequila's restaurant across Court Street from the big tent Friday. He said he knows little about Scientology, but he welcomed all the activity.
"If it will add revenue to the local economy, it's a beautiful thing," said Downey, who works in sales. "I'm hoping Scientologists go to local businesses and spend money."
The Scientology presentation began as scheduled shortly after 7 p.m., with thumping music emerging from the tent and several rounds of cheers. The event was closed to all except invited guests.
Around 9:30 p.m., the tent emptied but the party continued at the nearby church-owned Fort Harrison Hotel, where the strains of the Eddie Floyd hit Knock on Wood could be heard.
Outside the Scientology perimeter, scenes familiar in downtown Clearwater played out. In a vacant lot just a block east of the tent, hungry people lined up to receive plates of chicken and rice, carrots, green beans and salad from Beacon Street Ministries.
Organizer Dee Chastain looked down the street at the gleaming tent and towering Flag Building beside it and said, "Grandiose."
Turning back to her food truck, she added, "It's just tiny, but we're blessed to be here."
Charlie Frago can be reached at (727) 445-4159.