Building boom expands lodgings for Scientology
By DEBORAH O'NEIL
© St. Petersburg Times,
CLEARWATER -- The Church of Scientology boasts more hotel rooms and religious counseling spaces in Clearwater than ever before with the completion this summer of $9-million of construction downtown.
The church now has 565 hotel rooms in and near downtown Clearwater. In a typical week, about 1,300 visiting Scientologists from around the world lodge there while receiving spiritual counseling and training.
The newest expansions at the Sandcastle retreat and the Osceola Inn are part of a construction boom that marks Scientology's fastest period of growth in Clearwater since it arrived in 1975. Construction continues on the massive $50-million Flag Building downtown slated to open in March 2003.
"We're trying to keep up with the ever-expanding flow of people," said Mike Rinder, a top church official. "As there are more Scientologists in the religion around the world, there are more that come here."
At the Sandcastle -- the church's harbor-view retreat on N Osceola Avenue -- a three-story, 34,000-square-foot addition was recently finished. It has 84 rooms that are 8 by 10 feet, and are finished in cherry wood and brushed brass. The rooms are used for spiritual counseling known as auditing. The Sandcastle also has two floors with 62 hotel rooms.
With more auditing rooms, the church also needed more living quarters for those parishioners who come for the counseling. In 1998, the church paid $3.2-million for the Osceola Inn, a vacant retirement home across the street from the Sandcastle.
The church spent $5-million gutting and renovating the building and landscaping the grounds. Almost everything in the building is new, said Tom DeVocht, vice president of construction for the church.
"The reason for that is if you put a little more into it, it's going to last that much longer," he said. "It's because we have so many people in and out."
The "Osceola at the Sandcastle" opened this summer with 76 rooms, including two stylish penthouses on the sixth floor with spectacular views of the bay that go for $425 a night. The penthouses are the best church accommodations in the city.
"Right now, it's the top-of-the-line," DeVocht said. "It's brand-new."
The Osceola is already fully booked with a months-long waiting list, officials said.
It has 14 suites, smaller versions of the penthouses; a fully equipped fitness center with saunas in the locker rooms and a personal trainer; and a tropical-themed cafe that serves smoothies, sandwiches and dessert. Suites are $120 to $140 nightly. Regular rooms rates are between $45 and $70.
Guests of the Osceola walk across the street to the Sandcastle for their religious counseling and training. They typically stay for about three weeks.
Scientology officials say with all the investments they are making downtown, they are eager to see downtown improvements move forward.
"If you look at the Osceola, it's an improvement in the downtown skyline," Rinder said. "We're very supportive of anything the city wants to do or attempts to do with redevelopment. Our interest is in having a community and city that's nice for parishioners and nice to live in."
At Scientology's landmark facility, the Fort Harrison Hotel, there are 179 rooms. Rates there are $125 nightly for a cabana and $60 to $90 for a regular room.
The other lodging options for visiting Scientologists are the Yachtsman and the former Travelodge, both on Cleveland Street downtown.
Up to 500 students stay in three converted motels with a total of 143 rooms on N Fort Harrison north of downtown.
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times
North Pinellas desks