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    Unmistakable presence

    Scientology's largest facility in the world, still more than a year from completion, has altered the Clearwater skyline.

    [Times photo: Douglas Clifford]
    The shell of the Flag Building is almost done and interior construction will start near the end of October.

    By DEBORAH O'NEIL, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published July 28, 2002


    CLEARWATER -- From arched 31-foot windows to the 1,140-seat dining room, there is much that will be grand in the Church of Scientology's new downtown religious center.

    It will have 889 rooms, 447 windows, 42 bathrooms.

    A two-story lighted cross will perch atop the highest tower, 150 feet up.

    The building even has a hefty nickname, "Super Power."

    In recent weeks, the building's roofline and exterior have taken shape, giving Clearwater the opportunity to digest the drama of the $50-million Mediterranean Revival-style center at 215 S Fort Harrison Ave.

    And soon, a decorative pedestrian bridge will span Fort Harrison Avenue connecting Scientology's Fort Harrison Hotel to the new building, named the Flag Building after the local Scientology Flag Service Organization. The building, on which work began in early 1999, is expected to be completed by the end of 2003.

    "It's clearly a landmark building in Clearwater," said Duncan Broyd, the principal architect on the project from the Tampa firm HOK. "This is a building which is built for a 100-year life, plus."

    Bob Wright, a Scientology staff member overseeing the project, says people linger on downtown sidewalks every day staring at the building. There is much to see as the construction nears its final year.

    Work has begun on the 124-foot bridge 17 feet above Fort Harrison Avenue. It will connect the third floor of the Fort Harrison Hotel to a landing between the second and third floors of the Flag Building. Overnight road closures are expected during August and September during the bridge construction, Wright said.

    Designed to mirror the architecture of the new building, the passageway will be enclosed and air conditioned. No such bridge exists on any other Pinellas County state road, according to the Florida Department of Transportation.

    Scaffolding has been removed from the south side of the Flag Building, revealing a two-tone synthetic stucco finish. Corinthian-style capitals decorate tops of columns. The stately atrium stairway can be seen from the street.

    The shell of the building is almost done and interior construction will begin around the end of October. Church staff members will build the wood furniture and accents for the new building at Scientology's mill and workshop on Grand Central Street in Clearwater.

    Downtown buzz

    Opinions about the new building range from sheer wonder about its size to unease about what it means for downtown.

    "It's very impressive," said Wolf Schueder, owner of Paparazzi's restaurant on Cleveland Street. "I think it's beautiful architecture."

    Clearwater Mayor Brian Aungst: "It's going to be a big building, a nice building, in an area we're trying to redevelop and I think it will help in that regard."

    Downtown business owner Michele Homer said she's not sure of the building's purpose and described it as "intimidating."

    "It makes a huge statement," she said. "It is clear to me they own downtown and that's not a bad thing. They've done more for downtown than the city itself."

    The atrium of the Flag Building will feature three-story windows, a fountain and a series of 6-foot sculptures.

    Mike Meidel, president of the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce, is glad the church didn't build "a giant cube" downtown. "I think it's an attractive building," he said.

    He predicted the new building will bring in more well-to-do people. Plus, he said, with the new building, the church might be able to free space in the Coachman Building for retail, another boost for downtown.

    Downtown businessman Paul Gibson said while the building is "magnificent," it won't impact downtown.

    "The building will make the downtown look a little better," he said. "But I don't think it's going to have a measurable effect on economic sales."

    One Stoppe Shoppe owner Paris Morfopoulos said the new building will benefit all downtown merchants. "There will be thousands and thousands of people," he said. "It's going to be people with some money to spend."

    Dr. Mack Sigmon, pastor of Peace Memorial Presbyterian Church across the street, said his parishioners have been asking how the new building will affect their church.

    "Obviously, it dwarfs our church. It makes us less visible," he said. "The greatest concern I hear from my parishioners is, "Does this turn the downtown into the Scientology mecca? What about the other churches? What about businesses?' "

    Sigmon said he hopes city officials are committed to fostering economic prosperity downtown. He said he still hears people say they don't have any reason to come downtown -- that there's nothing in downtown but Scientology.

    "The city really needs to work hard to create ideas to bring people downtown," he said. "With the new building, it's imperative that happen."

    City Commissioner Frank Hibbard said he too has heard people worry that the city is giving downtown to the Church of Scientology. But, he said, the city is still working hard on downtown revitalization.

    "I haven't given up on downtown," he said. "We have too much potential."

    Both Hibbard and Commissioner Bill Jonson credited the church's design of the building.

    "It's quite a structure," Hibbard said. "Architecturally, I like it. It's a pretty building."

    A religious mecca

    For Scientologists, the new Flag Building brings the promise of never-before available religious services. Clearwater is the spiritual headquarters for Scientology and this will be the church's largest facility in the world.

    "They're seeing the landmark of their religion grow right in front of them," said church spokesman Ben Shaw. "It's very exciting."

    Unlike other Scientology facilities such as the Fort Harrison Hotel and the Sandcastle, the Flag Building will not have any hotel rooms. It will be used primarily for the delivery of religious services and for office space. The building will feature 300 rooms where as many as 900 Scientologists a day can receive "auditing," Scientology spiritual counseling.

    The building is coming online during the Church of Scientology's most rapid expansion since it arrived in Clearwater 27 years ago. In recent years, the church has added to its holdings a downtown high-rise and a 120-unit apartment complex, both of which will be used for the up to 1,000 additional staff members expected to come to Clearwater when the new building opens.

    Last summer the church wrapped up $9-million of renovations to the Sandcastle retreat and the Osceola Inn, growing its hotel space to 565 rooms around downtown. When the new building is completed, 48 more hotel rooms will be available in the Fort Harrison. The church plans to convert rooms now used for religious counseling back to hotel rooms. The rooms are used by thousands of Scientologists from around the world who visit the Clearwater church.

    Once those rooms are converted back to hotel units, the full Fort Harrison will be back on the property tax rolls. The new building, however, will likely be tax exempt because it will be used exclusively for religious purposes.

    On average, the Flag Building will be used daily by about 1,600 students and parishioners receiving auditing along with 1,200 staffers. It can hold 3,600 people.

    And at the Flag Building, Scientologists for the first time will be able to do "Super Power," an auditing process designed to provide "full restoration of one's perceptions," Shaw said. Developed by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, Super Power has not been released until now, Shaw said, because the church needed to build a facility specifically designed for Super Power. The new building will include a 150-foot running track on the sixth floor, which will be used as part of Super Power.

    Dining facilities for Scientology staff members in the Clearwater Bank Building will relocate to the basement of the Flag Building, which will feature a massive kitchen capable of preparing up to 11,500 meals a day.

    Both Broyd, the architect, and Wright, Scientology's project manager, said their favorite feature in the new building is the first-floor atrium, with windows that sweep three stories high. It will have a fountain and a series of 6-foot sculptures depicting various Scientology concepts.

    "When you walk into the space, it's huge," Wright said. "Aside from being huge, its intention is . . . you will get a very good idea of what Scientology is."

    Offices for various Scientology social programs will also be on the first floor, along with a heritage museum depicting the history of the Sea Organization, Scientology's fraternal organization of uniformed staff members who pledge their life in service to the church.

    The first floor of the Flag Building will be open to the public. Shaw said opening the facility will alleviate any concerns in the community.

    "It's something new," he said. "People will get used to it. It's going to be an open facility. People will be able to come and see for themselves, touch, feel, see. It's something positive."

    Morfopoulos, a Scientologist for 30 years, said the inside will be just as beautiful as the outside. And 50 or 100 years from now, he said, it will still be a classic.

    "When's the last time they built something that's going to be a landmark?"

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