Clearwater -- The Church of Scientology's seven-story Flag Building rose impressively, filling an entire city block.
By mid 2002, the Mediterranean Revival-style edifice looked nearly finished, at least on the outside. Church leaders promised a late 2003 grand opening.
But early in 2003, work stopped. The grand project has been at a virtual standstill.
Church officials made no public statement about the long delay.
So, in a town where rumors about Scientology are a community pastime, the speculation began.
Did they run out of money?
Did their ambitious plans overreach members' needs for services?
"I get questions about it all the time," said Clearwater's Mayor-elect Frank Hibbard. "People ask all sorts of things. They speculate. I just don't know what the story is."
Well, it's not money problems, said church spokesman Ben Shaw. It's got more to do with changing, and then changing again, benign features such as paint colors, molding styles and carpet.
The church refuses to start work, Shaw said, until plans are finalized "down to the last desk and wall design." Those plans now are nearly at that point, he said.
Work should resume early next year, he said. But he wasn't more definite than that. In the past 20 months, Shaw noted, the church bought, renovated or restored 11 buildings in nine cities around the world, such as Madrid; New York City; Johannesburg, South Africa; Brussels; and San Francisco.
"My point being, that's where our attention has been internationally," Shaw said.
As for rumors of lack of funds, Shaw scoffed. "Nothing could be further from the truth," he said. The Flag Building has been fully funded for more than a year, he said.
To understand how the church could leave a building so massive, so expensive, vacant for so long, requires an understanding of how Scientologists think.
"The difference is this, we build for eternity," Shaw said. "When we do that, we want it perfect."
That's different, he said, than a commercial developer whose financial bottom line causes time constraints.
"We don't have that," Shaw said.
That can frustrate a non-Scientologist like Steve Klar, the Clearwater architect of record on the Flag Building.
"No other business in the world would put up a (multimillion-dollar) shell and then let it sit empty for two years," Klar said.
The money lost by not having the building complete makes no business sense, he said.
"Clearly it's to their favor to have that thing built," he said. "Regardless of religion, business is business. It's very unusual."
The air conditioning duct work is finished, Klar said. The basement kitchen is installed. In short, it's completely ready for interior work, he said.
"Everything is just sitting there," he said.
Klar, too, dismissed rumors of money problems. "They really have the depth," he said.
Rather, it's the church's obsession with detail. The many design changes, some significant, all had to be approved by church officials in California, Klar said. And rather than just starting work and then making changes as they go along, church leaders insist on signing off on every minute detail before work starts.
The original interior designs showed an art deco look that Klar described as resembling a cruise ship from the 1920s. The motif made sense for a religion whose staffers join the "Sea Org." Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard was a sailor, and some religious training is still done aboard a cruise ship called the Freewinds. Clearwater is called the church's Flag land base.
That was the favored design for about a year and a half, Klar said. But when it came time to finalize construction documents, church leaders decided to go with a more conservative Mediterranean look.
During the ensuing delay, prices of steel and labor spiked, pushing the project's total cost from about $60-million to $70-million, Klar estimated.
"They want this to be the granddaddy of them all," he said.
Earlier this year, the city approved the church's reworked plans, but the drawings now will have to be revised again to include numerous changes, Klar said.
Once work does begin, it will take about a year to complete, Shaw said. Across the street, the church's signature Fort Harrison Hotel will be encased in scaffolding beginning in late January in preparation for a $20-million facelift. Then, later in the year, the church will start a four-story parking garage southeast of the Flag Building.
"It's going to be a big blitz," Shaw said.
That's welcome news to city officials.
"I think everyone would like to see it finished," Hibbard said.
He noted that the new Flag Building will consolidate the church's downtown activities, something he and others hope will reduce the flood of uniformed church employees on downtown streets.
"It looks like an abandoned construction site from the outside, and that doesn't speak well for our efforts for the downtown," said council member Hoyt Hamilton. "It would be a plus for everybody to see some progress."
And the sooner it's finished, Hamilton said, the sooner the Fort Harrison Hotel will return to the city's tax rolls.
Just 27 percent of the Fort Harrison Hotel is now taxable because portions are used for Scientology practices. The church paid almost $91,000 in taxes on it this year. Once renovated, it will be fully taxable as a hotel with three public restaurants, meeting rooms and a ballroom. This year, that tax bill would have been about $337,000, said Property Appraiser Jim Smith.
On the Flag building, the church now pays only vacant property taxes - $20,407 this year. But once completed, it will be entirely tax exempt because it will be used for religious purposes, Shaw said."