Ah, early December in downtown Clearwater.
Light poles wrapped in red holiday ribbons.
Trees along Cleveland Street abloom with tiny white lights. And, now, a newer tradition: the annual game of cat and mouse between the Church of Scientology and about two dozen of its most vocal critics, who for three years have gathered in Clearwater to stage protests on the anniversary of the Dec. 5, 1995, death of Scientologist Lisa McPherson.
Once again, both sides are trying to outsmart each other.
And Scientology has struck first. The critics are arriving this week to find no sidewalks where they traditionally have walked while carrying anti-Scientology picket signs.
The church has torn up sidewalks on the north and west sides of its worldwide "mecca," the Fort Harrison Hotel.
Just around the corner, it has constructed a 20-foot-high steel scaffold sheathed in green mesh across the lower facade of the hotel, making walking there impossible.
It also has pulled up about 1,000 feet of sidewalk along Drew Street, most of it in front of its glistening Sandcastle property.
"They'd rather destroy their own property than see criticism," said Jeff Jacobsen of Arizona, an organizer of the annual picket.
Not true, church officials say. They contend the work has been planned for more than a year as part of a major expansion and improvement program downtown.
The old sidewalks, they say, will be replaced with "integrally colored stamped concrete" that will look and feel like bricks.
Though the public owns the sidewalks, the church has agreed to maintain them and is paying $500,000 to rebuild them.
The scaffolding is needed for roof, window and stucco repairs to the Fort Harrison, according to a city permit. Workers also will drill into the base of the building to test the load capacity for a skywalk that someday will connect the Fort Harrison with Scientology's mammoth new building under construction immediately across the street.
All that work simply coincides with the arrival of the pickets, said Mike Rinder, a top church official in town from Los Angeles.
"Sometimes I think they believe the whole world revolves around them," Rinder said. "They come in for a few days, and they think whatever happens goes on for them. Then they leave and Clearwater goes on. I'm surprised they're not saying Christmas is being held for them."
Jacobsen was wholly unconvinced.
"It's the only hotel in the world that would tear up its sidewalk in its peak season," he said.
Rinder scoffed. The hotel always is crowded, he said. Peak is March, early May and summer.
The pickets will choose another place for their protest, Jacobsen said. They also plan a conference on "Scientology/Clearwater Relations" on Saturday at the Holiday Inn on U.S. 19 near Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard. A candlelight vigil is planned that evening.
The events, as in past years, memorialize McPherson, the Scientologist who died while in the care of church staffers after a 17-day stay at the Fort Harrison Hotel.
Last December, just before the critics gathered, the church tore up the sidewalk across the street from the hotel, where the critics had a permit to protest. But the group trumped the church, getting a second permit to picket directly in front of the hotel. And when critics also surprised the church with anti-Scientology advertising on local buses, church officials countered, persuading the bus system to remove the signs.
The previous year, Scientology had responded to planned pickets with a massive demonstration of its own. An estimated 3,000 Scientologists marched and chanted around police headquarters and the St. Petersburg Times Clearwater office, protesting what they said was discrimination against the church.
The pickets argue they are crusading against an organization that abuses its members. They say the church tries to deny the critics their First Amendment rights to voice opposition.
The church, in turn, portrays the critics as a motley group of hatemongers with nothing better to do than harass Scientologists. They say the critics are impinging on their First Amendment rights to practice their religion. Rinder said church members, as last year, would try to avoid the pickets this weekend.