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    Scientology to lodge performers

    The church is opening its Fort Harrison Hotel to weekend concert participants.

    By DEBORAH O'NEIL

    © St. Petersburg Times, published January 19, 2001


    CLEARWATER -- When music stars Roberta Flack, David Sanborn and Dr. John come to Clearwater for a Super Bowl weekend concert, they will stay in accommodations rarely seen by the public -- the Church of Scientology's signature spiritual retreat, the Fort Harrison Hotel.

    The church is providing 36 rooms, some for two nights, for the performers and their crews.

    And it's all free. The concert organizers, the Clearwater Jazz Holiday organization, are paying nothing.

    The church also is setting out a Saturday morning brunch -- again, gratis -- in the Fort Harrison's elegant Crystal Ballroom overlooking Clearwater Harbor. Jazz Holiday officials are inviting area dignitaries to meet the three artists and celebrate before the Super Bowl.

    The church's offer of rooms and brunch was welcomed by the Jazz Holiday.

    "They're doing it for free, no strings attached," said Karen Vann, Jazz Holiday executive director. "They're doing it to put a good face forward."

    It is a partnership both sides acknowledge would have been unimaginable years ago. It is another sign of a thawing in the icy relations that have persisted for years between the church and the Clearwater community.

    The Jazz Holiday group, which has staged the annual October jazz festival in downtown Clearwater for 20 years, has shied away from inviting musicians who are Scientologists because sponsors felt it would be too controversial.

    "There was a time when I got involved in Jazz Holiday we couldn't book Scientologists who happened to be artists," said Wayne Garcia, vice president of the board of directors. "We couldn't book Chick Corea."

    Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw said the church is glad the climate is changing. He attributes it to the community efforts and volunteer work of church members.

    Last year, the Jazz Holiday named prominent Clearwater Scientologist Bennetta Slaughter its "Queen Diva" for her fundraising efforts.

    This week, Slaughter was applauded by hundreds of members of the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce when the business she owns with her husband, David, AMC Publishing, was named Business of the Year.

    "People meet Scientologists and church staff members and work with them and find they're easy to work with," Shaw said. "That breaks down false information that probably was there as a barrier before."

    The church also offered free hotel space to the city of Clearwater, co-sponsors of the three-day pre-Super Bowl concert, which will be at Coachman Park and is a NFL-sanctioned event. The city is bringing in bands for next Thursday and Friday night. The Jazz Holiday's performers play Saturday.

    The city, though, is paying for its artists to stay elsewhere. Parks and Recreation Director Kevin Dunbar said the city already had booked rooms at three Clearwater hotels when the free offer came in.

    The Jazz Holiday's Vann said her organization had no money budgeted to pay for hotel accommodations. Plus, Vann said, when she started calling area hotels, she found most already were booked or charging top rates.

    So she approached Slaughter and inquired about the Fort Harrison.

    "I just breached the subject, "Do you allow non-Scientologists at your hotel?' " Vann said.

    Normally, the answer to that question is no.

    The Fort Harrison is a full-service, luxury hotel, but it is not open to the public. It's a tightly guarded spiritual facility where Scientologists receive religious services.

    "But again, we're part of the community," Shaw said. "We like to work on things like this. It's an event everyone should be working on to make a great weekend."

    The stars will stay in cabanas surrounding the pool. Nightly room rates average $135, Shaw said.

    The artists have been told they are staying in a church building, Vann said, and none expressed concern.

    William Roche, road manager for David Sanborn, said the hotel staff worked with him to make sure Sanborn would have a room with windows that open. The saxophonist demands fresh air, Roche said.

    "Our only hope is they will have a bar," Roche joked. "It will be fine."

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