Clearwater is Scientology's Mecca

Source: Toronto Star
Date: October 4, 2007

More than 30 years ago, L. Ron Hubbard secretly bought a historic hotel in this dying Florida downtown with a vision of making a spiritual home for his Church of Scientology. Today, locals and parishioners live in uneasy harmony.

by Mitch Stacy

Sure, says Mayor Frank Hibbard. It can be a little unsettling sometimes - throngs of Scientologists wandering Clearwater's streets in their blue or khaki trousers and crisp dress shirts.

Sometimes, it makes the neighbours a bit uneasy.

"When you come to downtown, no one likes being a minority," Hibbard says.

But mostly, folks in the picturesque city on the Gulf of Mexico coast have come to accept that Clearwater is to Scientologists what Salt Lake City is to Mormons, what Mecca is to Muslims. Though not everybody is happy about it.

"I think there's been a slow shift from a very strong adversarial relationship to a tolerance," says Ron Stuart, who clashed with church officials as an editor of the now-defunct Clearwater Sun in the '70s.

"There's still a lot of people in the city who don't trust them and wish they weren't there," says Stuart, who now works for the county court system. "But you can't deny that they contribute, particularly to the economy. Without them, there probably wouldn't be a downtown."

It's all unfolded over more than 30 years, since 1975, when L. Ron Hubbard came ashore.

The science fiction writer and his associates, who for years operated from aboard a yacht at sea, secretly bought a historic hotel in a dying downtown with a vision of making Clearwater a spiritual home for his Church of Scientology.

The mysterious newcomers made waves almost immediately with secretive, aggressive expansion and - according to church documents seized by the FBI - a covert plot to discredit their enemies and "take control" of the city.

Today, downtown Clearwater is an international Scientology stronghold and a destination for elite members (including celebrity devotees like Tom Cruise and John Travolta) who come from all over the world for the highest levels of the church's spiritual training.

The empire's thumbprint on the downtown is considerable and conspicuous, from the uniformed church workers on the streets every day to the two dozen or so Scientology-owned buildings on the skyline, many of them fully or partially exempt from property taxes.

Scientology's gem is the new seven-storey Flag Building, which covers a full city block. Also known as the "Super Power Building," it will be the largest Scientology structure in the world when completed late next year and is expected to draw thousands more visiting believers to Clearwater.

By church tallies, around 12,000 Scientologists live and work in and around Clearwater now, the old attitudes and prejudices in town softened by the passage of time and aggressive community outreach by the church. Scientologists now sit on the boards of civic groups. They own businesses downtown. No longer is it political suicide for local leaders to associate with them.

Hibbard, mayor of the city of around 110,000 residents, can hardly forget that the church is the largest private property owner downtown.

"They are a large presence," he said. "To ignore that fact is like sticking your head in the sand."

Hubbard established the Church of Scientology in 1954, based on theories he conceived in his best-selling book, "Dianetics The Modern Science of Mental Health." Today, the Los Angeles-based church claims 10 million members and more than 7,000 churches, missions and other groups around the world.

Scientologists believe spiritual enlightenment is possible by ridding your mind and soul of the accumulated, unwanted effects of this lifetime and innumerable previous lifetimes through an intense counselling process called "auditing." Auditors use a device called an "e-meter," similar to a polygraph.

Hubbard chose Clearwater, the church says, because it was accessible - the Tampa airport is a half hour away - and warm year round.

Despite the church's longtime presence and outreach efforts, Scientology is still mysterious and intimidating to many in Clearwater. The church's own polling in 2003 showed that a majority of local people who had no previous contact with the church had negative opinions about it.

New condo buildings are rising on the harbour and a long-awaited streetscape facelift is in the works, but some people wonder if a diverse downtown culture is possible with a Scientology building on nearly every corner and church staffers on the streets every day.

"When you have a mystery, people stay away," said George Kelly, owner of the landmark Downtown Newsstand.

Not everyone agrees. Omar Alexander, 21, who sat at the downtown Starbucks recently, said he isn't bothered by the ever-present Scientologists and doesn't believe they keep other people away. Every Scientologist he knows is a good person, Alexander says.

"They're working hard, doing what they need to do," he says.