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A place to sleep, but not to tour

Hacienda Gardens. With a charming name like that, it could be a suburban subdivision on Long Island or a mid-price property on the Monopoly board.

In Clearwater it's a 200-unit apartment complex near Kennedy Middle School for which the kindest descriptive adjectives might be dismal and depressing.

Hacienda Gardens is not your run-of-the-mill apartment project, aside from the fact that it is owned by the Church of Scientology and more than two-thirds of it is no longer considered taxable.

Few cars are ever seen at Hacienda Gardens because most of the tenants don't own cars and are bused to work in downtown Clearwater several miles away. There are few if any lawn chairs or barbecue grills or blades of healthy grass, for that matter.

You seldom see people, either, although lots of them live there. Nearly 1,000, apparently; the allowable capacity is 1,289. The Scientologists recently asked a city board if they could increase that capacity to 1,786 but withdrew the request when objections surfaced.

The Scientologists say 78 of the 200 units are occupied by married staff members _ "one couple per sleeping room." Does that mean, I innocently asked Scientology spokesman Richard Haworth, that a unit with two or three bedrooms would have two or three couples sharing that unit?

"Sure," he said.

The remaining 122 units are occupied by unmarried staff members as well as students who are here for "ministerial and administrative training." The Scientologists wanted to increase the number of people in those units from 836 to 1,356.

They said they could house four people per bedroom, or 12 people in a three-bedroom unit. Two bunk beds _ i.e., four beds _ in each sleeping room is "the preferred arrangement," the Scientologists said in a report to the city.

The Scientologists said their staff members don't need much space because about all they do at Hacienda Gardens is sleep there. They leave for work by 9 a.m. most days, eat in Scientology dining rooms downtown and don't return to their rooms until 10:30 p.m. or later.

I jog or bicycle by Hacienda Gardens frequently, but haven't been invited in and am not about to be caught trespassing. So I asked Haworth, who has taken me on guided tours of the Fort Harrison Hotel and Sandcastle Motel, if he would do likewise at the apartments, where he lives.

He said no because that would be like answering a knock on the door with only one leg in your pants. In other words, they're not ready yet for guests. He said renovations at Hacienda Gardens have been put on the back burner because of work at other facilities, including the Fort Harrison, the Coachman Building (where they lease space) and the former Heart of Clearwater Motel.

Once they get around to renovating Hacienda Gardens, we might be impressed with the finished product, although the challenge is formidable. But look at the old Heart of Clearwater Motel at Cleveland Street and Greenwood Avenue. It certainly had seen better days. Since its recent renovation and renaming _ it's now The Yachtsman _ the downtown facility looks pretty good.

Hacienda Gardens is occupied by Scientology staff members _ from counselors to cooks, clerks, maids and security people. Lots of counselors, or ministers. Each counselor works with four or five "parishioners" a day, Haworth said, and there are as many as 1,500 "parishioners" in Clearwater at any given time, coming here from around the world.

A "labor-intensive, minister-intensive" situation, he said.

The "training levels" available here are among the highest offered in Scientology, Haworth said, so the ministers who counsel at those levels naturally come to Clearwater and stay indefinitely.

Actually, he said, most of the staff members have been here for some years. Just like a business, Haworth said, it makes sense to have continuity.

How, I asked him, does Scientology get these people to work such long hours and live in such crowded conditions? Well, he said, Scientology is "a fairly dedicated organization." These people join the church staff to spend their time and talents helping advance a cause they believe in.

"Richard," I asked, "any chance of discarding those uniforms your people wear?" I pointed out that Scientology, not surprisingly, comes up at most meetings of downtown movers and shakers. While acknowledging that Scientologists apparently are here to stay, someone invariably comments, "If they just didn't wear those uniforms, they would blend in better and not be so obtrusive."

Sorry, Haworth responded, "uniforms are part of our tradition" and also are worn in places like Los Angeles, Copenhagen and Sydney, Australia. He pointed out that Scientologists refer to Clearwater as Flag Land Base because they moved here from the ocean-going flagship Apollo.

Because the church provides clothing for all its staff members, including the business suits that Haworth wears, going with a standard uniform for most members is also an economical measure, he said.

The Scientologists had said they needed to increase capacity at Hacienda Gardens to accommodate the 300 new staff members who will work in the Super Power Building to be built across the street from the Fort Harrison Hotel. Since they dropped that idea, how will they house these people? Haworth said they will be discussing that with their Clearwater attorney, Tim Johnson Jr.

Boy, did that name in the recent Hacienda Gardens articles send local eyebrows skyward, but that's another story.

These are busy times for the Scientologists in Clearwater. As they like to proclaim in their literature, "Flag is where it's happening!"