Scientologists Open Hotel Doors To Community

The lobby area of the Church of Scientology headquarters at the Fort Harrison hotel in Clearwater.

CLEARWATER - The pool at the Fort Harrison Hotel holds some of Liz Roche's fondest childhood memories. She recalls fun family afternoons at the hotel in the 1950s and '60s - before the Church of Scientology bought the landmark hotel and closed most of the property to the public.

This week, as the hotel celebrates its 75th anniversary, the church with the reputation for shrouding itself in secrecy has opened its doors, offering a rare glimpse into the world of Scientology and giving people like Roche a chance to relive childhood memories.

``It hasn't changed as much as I thought it would,'' Roche said of the restored hotel, now an international Scientology retreat. ``It still has that grand hotel feeling.''

Roche said she's not a Scientologist and wants nothing to do with the church except to tour the hotel, but she said she was pleasantly surprised there were no attempts by Scientologist tour guides to convert her to the religion.

Church officials say conversion and secrecy are not what the tours are about.

``It's definitely a way to communicate who we are, what we do and answer people's questions,'' said Pat Harney, the church's public affairs director.

The open tours and plans for a public-friendly training and counseling center under construction across the street from the hotel show a more open and accommodating Church of Scientology. The church recently announced plans to open the Fort Harrison to the public permanently, once the 380,000-square-foot training and counseling center is complete in late 2003.

``If people understand a little bit of what goes on, it makes it easier,'' said Lisa Valverde, the church's downtown relations director.

The anniversary celebration events will run through Feb. 17 and include a Valentine's Day dinner at the hotel's Hibiscus Restaurant. The church also is offering complimentary lunch or dinner to people celebrating their 75th birthdays. The tour includes a photo exhibit, ``Images of a Lifetime,'' which depicts the life of L. Ron Hubbard, the science fiction author who founded Scientology.

Church And City Growing Together

As the church expands its influence in Clearwater, the once contentious relationship that existed between the Scientologists and the city is moving toward mutual acceptance. A black-tie, invitation-only gala to celebrate the hotel's 75th anniversary Jan. 26 was attended by a number of city officials and community leaders - proof both sides are learning to coexist.

Mayor Brian Aungst attended the gala, as did city commissioners Hamilton Hoyt and Gray Whitney and their wives. Of the seven county commissioners, only Susan Latvala and her husband, State Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, attended.

Susan Latvala said hundreds of people have moved here to be near the church and they own businesses and have become a part of the community.

``So now we know them as people, as citizens - sitting on boards, doing charity work,'' Susan Latvala said. ``That's the relationship they've built that we've never had before.

``They're such a big presence now, and it's largely positive.''

City Commissioner Bill Jonson said he couldn't attend the gala because of a scheduling conflict, not out of animosity toward the church. He said he didn't recall the church as the subject of much controversy ``in many, many years.''

But lawsuits and countersuits are pending in the 1995 death of Lisa McPherson while in the care of Scientologists at the old hotel.

Sheriff Everett Rice attended the gala. Veteran Clearwater Police Chief Sid Klein did not.

On Dec. 18, the police department ended off-duty officers' around-the- clock patrols of church properties, at Scientology's request, after the anti- Scientology Lisa McPherson Trust packed its bags, closed its nearby offices and left town.

Valverde said her church is working hard to improve the quality of life in Clearwater and that the more people see that, the more accepting they become.

``We've really gotten to know each other better,'' she said. ``We have a really good rapport.''

New Image, Old Concerns

Mayor Aungst said he's seen the church work hard to change its image through community involvement. Aungst said he was most encouraged when the church offered to sell one of its many downtown properties to developer Lee Arnold for a condominium/hotel project.

That move counters a widely held belief that the church has plans to buy more land and take control of the city. But such beliefs and fears are not without reason.

Boxes of documents, seized during FBI raids of Scientology offices in Los Angeles and Washington two years after the church arrived in Clearwater, detailed plans to use infiltration, theft and smear campaigns to obtain a foothold in the city. Scientology officials subsequently have said those who crafted the plans violated church policy and have been dismissed from the church.

``I think there's a lot of fence- mending that they still need to do in the community,'' Aungst said. ``But we're happy the hotel will be going back on the tax rolls.''

``People shouldn't be scared of us,'' Scientologist Diana Rajdl said. ``We are church people, too. We really, really care about the world.

``We should join together to fight against the psychiatrists, disease, war, criminality and drug-dealing, not against each other.''