Clearwater -- The Church of Scientology is moving forward with top-to-bottom renovations of the Sherwood Gardens apartments on the west side of Keene Road to provide housing for hundreds of staffers the church plans to add to its Clearwater work force.
The church bought the 107-unit complex in 1999 for $4-million, anticipating the need for future staff housing. It continued to rent many of the apartments until the last couple of years, when tenants were notified leases would not be renewed. The final tenant moved out this year.
Now, the apartments are being readied for the additional staffers the church will bring in when its massive building downtown is completed, said spokesman Ben Shaw.
Construction on the Flag Building, also called the Super Power Building, has stalled for years, but Shaw announced in April that it will be finished and open by the end of 2007.
The church expects to add 500 staffers to the 1,400 currently residing in Clearwater. The plan had been to convert the church-owned Oak Cove high-rise on the downtown waterfront into staff housing. It's just two blocks from the Flag Building. But now plans call for Oak Cove to become another hotel space for visiting Scientologists.
At Sherwood Gardens, the church put new roofs on all seven buildings this year, but much work remains. The buildings need asbestos removed and electrical work. The church also plans major renovation to the interior, exterior and pool.
Stacked in the parking lot are new air conditioning units yet to be installed. Head-high concrete columns dot the property's perimeter, indicating the contours of a yet-to-be-built privacy wall.
All the conversion work to the complex is expected to be completed by the end of the year. Sherwood will include 107 apartments, two gyms, laundry facilities and several common areas where staffers can play games and watch movies.
The nexus of Scientology's staff housing is the Hacienda Gardens complex, a couple of blocks to the south. Walled and gated, the 187-unit complex fronts Saturn Avenue and backs up to Keene Road and is surrounded by a mix of walls, hedges and tall oleanders.
Once Sherwood Gardens is fully renovated and Scientologists move in, the two church facilities - Hacienda and Sherwood - will sandwich a city-owned nursery and the Clearwater Apartments, a government-subsidized 54-unit complex.
The church also has staff housing in two other areas of Clearwater. A former Quality Inn on U.S. 19 near Belleair Road typically is the dwelling for staffers with children. Downtown, staffers live at a converted Travel Lodge called the Mariner on Cleveland Street. A few staffers, including Shaw, live in the Fort Harrison Hotel.
Scientology staffers working in Clearwater are members of a group called the Sea Org. They are Scientology's elite staff. They dedicate their lives to church service and deliver the highest levels of Scientology training to visiting Scientologists. These are the uniformed Scientologists seen walking in groups around downtown.
Sea Org members work long hours for little pay - the current stipend is $75 a week. The church provides communal housing, meals, uniforms and health care.
Pat Harney, a Scientology spokeswoman and Sea Org member, likened the intensive commitment to that of Roman Catholic monks or nuns.
Harney said members typically wake around 7:30 a.m. The day starts with exercise in the on-site gym or group calisthenics in the courtyard, or by playing sports such as volleyball. Afterward, a fleet of 10 buses arrives every 15 minutes to transport staffers from their housing at Hacienda Gardens or the old Quality Inn to the church's downtown campus.
Most are dropped directly at the former Clearwater Bank building at Cleveland Street and Fort Harrison Avenue, a portion of which is the staff cafeteria. Staffers eat meals there in shifts, with a half hour allotted for breakfast and lunch and 45 minutes for dinner. In between, staffers work at their assigned posts, or squeeze in up to 12½ hours a week of Scientology training. Most staffers finish their day at 10 p.m. and are bused back to their dorm-style quarters.
Staffers get one day off every two weeks, though many don't take it, Harney said. And they are entitled to three weeks of vacation per year, though few take all of it, she said. In addition, staffers get several hours on a weekend morning to take care of personal needs, such as getting a haircut.
"There are people in the world, not Scientologists, who also put a lot of time into doing the things they want to do," Harney said. "And these are the people who are most successful."
The Sea Organization dates to 1967, when Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard and a few other Scientologists set out to sea, where Hubbard continued his research into spiritual awareness. Just as that original crew pledged eternal service, those joining the Sea Org today sign billion-year contracts to serve the church. Clearwater's Sea Org members deliver to visiting Scientologists the church's highest program levels.
About 1,400 Sea Org members live in these church-owned facilities: