Scientology has big plans for landmark
Church leaders say the Fort Harrison Hotel in Clearwater will have an extensive overhaul.
By JACOB H. FRIES, Times Staff Writer
Published September 29, 2007
CLEARWATER - The Church of Scientology is in announcement mode again, this time saying it will spend $20-million on a major upgrade of its iconic Fort Harrison Hotel.
But what church officials aren't saying is exactly when the work will start.
So, expect some eye rolls.
That's because across the street from the Fort Harrison is Scientology's seven-story Super Power building. Stuccoed, trimmed and painted on the outside, the huge building is unfinished and vacant on the inside.
And, remarkably, it's been sitting like that for four years.
Church officials offer no explanation other than citing what's been a recurring need to revise interior design schemes in an effort to get it just right.
Maybe they finally are there.
Work to finish Super Power finally is expected to begin this fall - at the same time crews start renovating the Fort Harrison, according to church spokeswoman Pat Harney.
Envisioned for the 81-year-oldhotel, where thousands of visiting Scientologists have lodged since the church came to Clearwater in 1975, is an upgrade so extensive the hotel will be worthy of a five-star rating, church leaders say.
The 220 guest rooms - they're just for Scientologists - will be redone in a West Indies motif, with marble baths and antique tubs. The hotel also will get new wiring, new plumbing and a central AC system to replace unsightly window units.
The hotel's three restaurants will be made over, too, so they meet standards for high dining and haute cuisine. And for the first time, the restaurants will be open daily to the public.
"We are intent on preserving and even bringing back the original feel of the hotel," Harney said.
The timing of these two projects depends on when work is complete on a third Scientology building in the cluster. Just a block west of the Fort Harrison is the 13-story former Oak Cove residential building, which the church bought in late 2001 for $5-million.
Perched on a bluff overlooking Clearwater Harbor, it's being converted it into a 240-room hotel for visiting Scientologists at a cost of $26-milion. It also will house other church operations currently in the Fort Harrison.
Once those church offices, which receive a property tax exemption, are moved out of the Fort Harrison, the hotel's tax bill likely will increase by about $35,000 to $140,000 a year, church officials expect.
"The day we're going to move operations into Oak Cove, we're going to start construction on the Fort Harrison and Super Power buildings," said Uli Huber, who oversees the church's building projects. "There will be no delay."
It's all part of the church's vision for Clearwater. Earlier this year, the church completed two other projects:
-The 106-unit Sherwood Gardens apartment complex opened in early June as staff housing. The church bought the complex, which is in central Clearwater, about three miles from downtown, for $4-million in 1999 and spent another $2-million converting it. It includes a gym, laundry facilities and several common areas where staffers can play games and watch movies.
-On June 29, the church opened a 600-space parking garage a block east of the Super Power building. The four-story garage, costing $7-million to build, integrates the Mediterranean Revival style of the rest of the church's downtown campus.
In City Hall, however, officials react with skepticism to yet another promise to finish Super Power. Previously announced completion timetables failed to stand up. The seven-story Super Power building, which takes up the entire block, originally was to open in 2002.
"The proof will be in the pudding when it gets done," Mayor Frank Hibbard said recently. "We're certainly looking forward to it all being completed."
The church has been racking up daily fines of $250 for failing to bring Super Power building's exterior, mechanical systems and landscaping up to code. Last week the total exceeded $114,000. When the building is finally finished - whenever that is - the city's code board will review the fines and determine whether to forgive any.
"They appear to be trying, but we can't ever seem to meet the target," said Jeff Kronschnabl, the city's director of development and neighborhood services. "I'm not being pessimistic. ... I'm being realistic. When it's done, it's done."
Huber and other church officials said they are not concerned about the fines. They are confident progress will be swift, they said, now that plans are finalized.
And while Huber can speak only generally about when work will start, he's not saying anything about when it will be finished. It's too early, he said, to say how long work will take. It must be perfect, down to the smallest detail.
"This is our Mecca Building," he said.
It will feature a ground-floor Scientology museum open to the public. On upper floors will be hundreds of rooms for Scientology's core practice of auditing. It will also be the only place worldwide where the highly classified Scientology program called Super Power will be offered.
After the Super Power building and the Fort Harrison are finished, another major project will follow, say church officials. A 3,600-seat auditorium, once estimated at $40 million, is still in the planning stages.
Jacob H. Fries can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8872.