A 10,000-pound hammer drove another 40-foot-long sheet of metal into the ground across the street - the site of a planned 324,000-square-foot Scientology training and counseling center in downtown.
The six-story complex will be one of the largest buildings in Pinellas County.
Work on the foundation, which began in early February, confirms what some Clearwater residents and downtown merchants consider anathema and others accept without emotion: The church is growing. And that growth is taking place while the city is poised to launch its own downtown redevelopment initiative.
The church expects to spend $60 million to $70 million building the massive training complex, an adjacent 3,500-seat auditorium and perhaps two parking garages.
It also plans to restore the landmark Fort Harrison Hotel to its original 1927 splendor, with the modern convenience of central heating and air conditioning.
From a large video screen in the hotel mezzanine, parishioners are guided on a computer-generated tour of the new complex.
The center will mirror the hotel's Mediterranean style, with a 150-foot decorative tower on its west side. Sculptures depicting the fundamentals of Scientology will greet guests as they enter a three-story atrium. Other floors will contain church offices, counseling and course-training rooms, a new bookstore, library, theaters and a museum devoted to Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.
"We really think it will beautify Clearwater," said Tom DeVocht, the church's project manager for the huge complex.
Renovation of a row of hotel cabanas is under way. And a three-story addition is planned for the nearby Sandcastle Motel, another of the church's holdings.
The expansion and renovations come almost 25 years after the church bought the Fort Harrison and initially turned it into its religious headquarters. For most of those years, the church's relationship with the city has been contentious.
Two years after its arrival, the FBI raided church offices in Washington and Los Angeles. Among the seized documents were plans to take control of Clearwater through city leaders and major institutions.
Scientology officials subsequently have said the plans violated church policy and those who crafted them were dismissed from the church. But the FBI raid still rings loudly in the psyche of many longtime residents.
The church corporation now faces criminal charges filed by the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's office in the 1995 death of a parishioner following a 17-day stay at the Fort Harrison.
Lisa McPherson, 36, died of a blood clot brought on by severe dehydration and bed rest, according to an autopsy. Church officials contest those results and call McPherson's death a tragedy.
Nevertheless, the church gradually is gaining acceptance in the community, Scientology spokesman Brian Anderson says.
And with a renewed focus on rehabilitating downtown, there are signs the city and church are willing to shed antagonistic roles for something mutually beneficial.
Scientology officials say they began noticing a change after a city election three years ago. It continued with the arrival of City Manager Mike Roberto from North Miami Beach in 1997.
FOR YEARS, some downtown merchants have maintained Scientology is the bane of their prosperity. Some businesses left or avoided downtown altogether, because of the church's overriding presence. But if that's the case, Roberto says, it's the city's fault. If area businesses connote downtown Clearwater with Scientology it's because there's nothing else going on there, Roberto. FOR YEARS, some downtown merchants have maintained Scientology is the bane of their prosperity. Some businesses left or avoided downtown altogether, because of the church's overriding presence.
But if that's the case, Roberto says, it's the city's fault.
If area businesses connote downtown Clearwater with Scientology it's because there's nothing else going on there, Roberto says.
The church, he says, isn't a problem. In fact, if it "disappeared tomorrow, I don't believe for a moment downtown would suddenly become a thriving metropolis."
"We've been so busy fighting the church, we forgot parts of Rome were burning."
City officials and Scientology representatives held meetings last summer and fall after Roberto unveiled a long-term redevelopment strategy for key areas of the city, including downtown.
"The question is what are we going to do in downtown," Roberto says, "and how everything else has to fit into it."
Observers say the church and city are trying to be better neighbors.
About a year ago, the church replaced its staff's blue uniforms with more casual clothing. It also sponsors a variety of community events.
Scientology officials also agreed to a city suggestion to move their staff dining facility from a building on downtown's main drag to the new training complex.
CHURCH STAFFERS and parishioners will be able to access the new facility from the hotel and the future auditorium via overhead pedestrian walkways.
Scientology officials and the city are also working together on parking for the new complex.
City code requires about 900 parking spaces, but the city could allow the church to build fewer spaces and pay the city a fee. In turn, the city could use the money to build its own garage.
Scientology moved its headquarters to Los Angeles three years ago, but Clearwater is still its international religious retreat. Each year, about 10,000 church members from around the world come here for courses and counseling, Anderson says. When the new center is done, the church expects that number to double.
For its 26 Clearwater properties, the church paid $269,000 in property taxes last year; the hotel accounted for $5,569 in taxes. Tax revenues from all the properties should increase when the new complex is done and the hotel is residential, Anderson says.
GLENN WARREN, chairman of the Clearwater Downtown Development Board, says merchants hold mixed views about the new church facility despite additional tourists and more property taxes.
"Many of my friends are dead-set against them," says Warren, whose father started the family business downtown in 1930.
"But damn if I can tell the difference between a Scientologist's dollar and a Baptist dollar or a Presbyterian's dollar. And that's the point.
"My personal feeling is that anything that large is going to have a positive impact within the community."