Scientologists Pledge To Finish Vacant Shrine

Tampa Tribune/February 2, 2007
By Baird Helgeson

Clearwater -- The Church of Scientology's mammoth, new spiritual shrine has stood vacant and unfinished for years, its dusty Mediterranean-style shell surrounded by patches of scrubby grass and "no trespassing" signs.

Now, church officials say they are ready to resume work on the building as it has racked up more than $55,000 in fines for not meeting the city's deadline to finish the exterior.

Clearwater's building department issued a new construction permit that will allow the church to finish the exterior of the 384,000-square-foot structure, more than two years after the original permit expired. The church broke ground on the seven-story building in March 2000.

Even though the city could forgive some or all of the fines when the building is finished, the delays highlight the church's struggle to complete some of its projects as promised, in Clearwater and in other communities. Church officials say the delays stem from their desire to make the buildings perfect.

"It's exciting to get this thing rolling," said Peter Mansell, a Scientology spokesman in Clearwater. "We are committed to fixing things quickly."

Elsewhere, the church announced with much fanfare last year that it bought buildings in Plant City and St. Petersburg and would open Life Improvement Centers by the end of last summer. Citing an overwhelming demand for its services, the church unveiled colorful drawings of the buildings transformed into Scientology centers, complete with classrooms, stress tests and works of its science fiction writing founder, L. Ron Hubbard.

Today, both sites sit empty and seem a long way from the renderings presented last year.

Scientology officials also pledged to open Life Improvement Centers in Lakeland, Sarasota, Gainesville, Cocoa Beach and Jacksonville by the end of last year. None of those has materialized.

Nationally, critics argue that Scientology's membership is in steep decline and it no longer has the money to support its worldwide expansion plans. In the past few years, church leaders say they have opened renovated churches in London, Madrid, New York and other cities around the world.

Mansell denied that financial trouble caused the local projects to languish, saying the church has more projects under way than ever before.

Skanska USA Building Inc. built the Scientologists' new Clearwater structure, along with several other church projects.

Fred Hames, a senior vice president in the Tampa office, said the company was always paid, and he confirmed that design issues caused the work to stop on the building.

Building A 'Mecca'

In the case of the Clearwater building, Mansell said the church is determined to ensure the building is a masterpiece, no matter how long it takes. The building is an important landmark for the church. Clearwater is the church's spiritual headquarters, a place where those who have reached the highest levels of Scientology come to study.

Scientologists call their unfinished showpiece the new Flag Building, which stands for flagship.

The new building encompasses an entire city block and will be used to administer the Super Power Rundown, a new high-level Scientology training course for its most accomplished members. It will also include numerous rooms for classes and counseling.

Mansell described the building as the Mecca for Scientologists, comparing it to the Vatican or any religion's most holy shrine. He said that unlike when developers build a high-rise hotel or condos, the church doesn't answer to restless tenants or lenders clamoring for the building to be finished. He declined to say how much the new headquarters will cost.

"What is going on is not something we would call a delay," Mansell said. "When you are building a church like this, you are building it for the future."

Clearwater building officials weren't as patient. The glacial pace of the project upset the Municipal Code Enforcement Board. Last June, the board levied its stiffest fine of $250 a day after the church didn't renew permits necessary to complete the exterior. The church then failed to meet the board's demand that it finish the work by the end of September.

"They promised to have all this done four years ago, but we have not seen it," said Doug Williams, chairman of the code board. "They have not done what they were supposed to be doing."

Church officials hoped to have the building completed by 2004. But work stopped in 2003 to retool the design of the interior, and then permits expired Nov. 21, 2004.

The church did little to the building after that.

Williams and other board members said they grew tired of seeing the building become an eyesore, resembling a work site more than a religious sanctuary.

Even if the church meets the board's demands, the building could be a long way from a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The city is only asking for the church to complete the façade, landscaping, sidewalk and curbs. The church is allowed to keep a large hole in the side of the building to ease the delivery of construction materials.

The city won't issue construction permits for the interior until the exterior is complete, said Kevin Garriott, a Clearwater building official.

"We just want to get the exterior done and landscaped," Garriott said. "What they do with the inside, we don't care."

Mansell said the church expects to have the exterior completed before the new permit expires in May. At that point, the church can petition to have the fines reduced. He expects the entire building to be finished sometime in 2008.

The unfinished Life Improvement Centers in Plant City and St. Petersburg are part of the church's Tampa headquarters, which offers lower-level Scientology classes and recruits new members.

"We decided to take a bit of extra time to really find out more about the needs of each of these communities and tailor our programs more specifically for each area," said Pat Harney, a church spokeswoman in Clearwater.

Harney said the church was overwhelmed with demand for its English-as-second-language programs, and redesigned the two centers to better accommodate those needs. Church leaders hope to open the Plant City center this spring and the one in St. Petersburg soon after that.

Plant City Center Delays

A Plant City official is eager to see work proceed on the high-profile downtown building. "I don't believe we've been contacted by them for at least a few months," said City Manager David Sollenberger. "We'd really like to see it occupied and used."

Harney also attributed the delays, at least partially, to the church's decision to focus on several large construction projects in Clearwater.

The church is renovating Oak Cove, a 13-story residential building that will become a 240-room hotel for parishioners coming to Clearwater. The church expects to complete the renovation by the middle of this year.

The church also is renovating a 112-unit apartment complex called Sherwood Gardens for church staff. The building is about a month from completion, Harney said.

Construction is nearly finished on a 600-space parking ramp that will serve the church's Clearwater campus.

"We are working to set a high standard for our facilities, infusing tens of millions of dollars into the Clearwater economy, to create a downtown we can all be proud of," Harney said.

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