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Scientologists reveal plan for renovation

Title: Scientologists reveal plan for renovation
Date: Tuesday, 1 November 1983
Publisher: St. Petersburg Times (Florida)
Author: Jill Hancock
Main source:

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CLEARWATER — The Church of Scientology plans a $3-million restoration of the former Fort Harrison Hotel and the church-owned Sandcastle Motor Inn.

Speaking before television cameras at a press conference called in the ornate hotel lobby, church spokesman Richard Haworth said the project indicates that "we are obviously in Clearwater to stay."

But the church's upbeat affirmation of its downtown presence brought chuckles of skepticism and moans of disapproval from some local officials and civic leaders.

The controversial sect's reasons for undertaking the 12-to 18-month project are many, but simple maintenance is high on the list, Haworth said.

"ANY BUILDING that gets this kind of use is going to show some wear and tear," he said.

In 1982, city inspectors cited the hotel for fire and building code violations. The church repaired the problems just as the city was preparing to shut the building down.

The 11-story Fort Harrison, appraised for tax purposes at $5.4-million, is the international headquarters of Scientology. Appraised at $2.1-million, the former Sandcastle Motor Inn, at 200 N Osceola Ave., is the training annex. The church owns six other buildings in the Clearwater area.

Another important reason for the project, Haworth said, is historic interest in the Fort Harrison, built in 1926-27. A team of 35 architects and planners brought in from the church's California offices last week is charged with restoring the hotel to its "original grandeur," he said.

That means the 80 percent of the total restoration budget allocated to the hotel will go toward modern improvements such as new air conditioning and more efficient kitchen equipment. But portions will also go to such detail work as repairing the original terra cotta roof, repainting the gold leaf patterns on the moldings and buying new furnishings that complement the neoclassical architecture.

To that end, workers were busy Monday sanding paint off the walls and ceiling of the 10th floor "Crystal Ballroom."

Church officials also hope, Haworth said, "that this will provide an impetus . . . to get revitalization of downtown speeded up."

Though the restoration design will be done by Scientology members who have researched the original design, the work will go out by competitive bidding, which will benefit local business, Haworth said.

AND ANY enhancement of Scientology's public image as a spin-off of the project would be a welcome bonus, he said.

But several officials and civic leaders said Monday afternoon that there is little if any possibility of Scientology helping downtown Clearwater.

In fact, "the biggest revitalization they could do would be to leave town," said Alan Bomstein, chairman of the Downtown Development Board.

Former Mayor Charles LeCher echoed that.

"They do this at least once a year — announce that they're going to fix up their buildings," he said. "But they never do. I would rather them save their money, sell their property and go somewhere else . . . and start over with a new property."

Bob Love, president of the Downtown Clearwater Association, said Scientology's presence is a business detriment.

"Personally, I think any of the economic benefits (of church expenditures) are more than offset by the number of people who avoid the area (because of the Scientologists)," he said.

County Commission member Gabe Cazares, one of the Church of Scientology's most vocal opponents, said he too is "greatly concerned about the negative impact they have had on downtown Clearwater.

"The more visible Scientology becomes in downtown Clearwater," he said, "the less likely investors will come in and make investments in downtown Clearwater."

(FOR TWO years, Cazares, a former Clearwater mayor, has been pursuing a lawsuit in state court accusing the church of invasion of privacy and malicious prosecution.)

The Church of Scientology came to Clearwater in 1975 under the cover of a secretive Delaware corporation called Southern Land Development and Leasing Corp. In December of that year, Southern bought the Fort Harrison for $2.3-million cash.

Shortly after that, the Scientologists, calling themselves the United Churches of Florida, moved in.

The church bought the Sandcastle Motor Inn in 1979.