CLEARWATER — Danielle Lumberg flitted from street corner to street corner Sunday afternoon, craning her neck around tall potted trees, privacy fences and church security guards as she tried to sneak a peak at the church of Scientology's massive new Flag Building in downtown Clearwater.
“It sounds like Disney World in there,” Lumberg said, as a group of curious onlookers, dog walkers and two protestors in Guy Fawkes masks joined her outside the barricaded courtyard of the new 377,000-square-foot building. Inside the gates, an estimated 10,000 Scientologists listened to religious leader David Miscavige christen the building in a burst of trumpet fanfare and shimmering, gold confetti loud enough to drown out the whirring news helicopters that hovered above the scene.
The more than 12 years of construction and controversy surrounding the seven-story structure, the tallest in Clearwater, culminated in a dedication ceremony that lasted less than 10 minutes. Once it was over, Scientologists from all over the world who traveled to be a part of the opening dispersed into the streets. For now, only church members are allowed to enter the building or even get close to many of this week's opening activities happening in large, white tents erected in surrounding streets. And even those members have to register to tour the secretive facility, which spans an entire city block by the Pinellas County Courthouse and other municipal buildings.
Lumberg, a third-generation Scientologist and a member of the Clearwater church, wasn't allowed inside the barricades Sunday morning but was glad to witness “history in the making,” she said. In time, the building will become a hub of activity for the entire Clearwater community, attracting more visitors and business to the area, Lumberg said. But Sunday was for parishioners only, said Pat Harney, public affairs director for the Church of Scientology Flag Service Organization.
“Thank God it's finally done,” Lumberg, a cosmetologist in Clearwater, said. “There are so many more people joining the church we really needed more space so we could be more comfortable and do more things for the community, and the response today is absolutely breathtaking. We've been looking forward to this for a long, long time.”
The massive, Mediterranean-style building was adorned with a giant red bow, and will house multiple “Super Power” programs developed by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. The programs are said to hone church members' 57 senses, such as the ability to tell the temperature, or have a heightened awareness of their environment.
Building plans show a basement kitchen and dining facility and a two-story executive office with a balcony, conference room, kitchenette, private bath and shower. Five banks of elevators lead to hundreds of classrooms and offices, and the three-story tall grand entrance houses videos and other displays to recruit and educate new members.
There is an anti-gravity chamber, a sound chamber, and a black-domed running track big enough for 459 people for use in achieving enlightenment and purging the body of toxins. Locker rooms and saunas are nearby. The fourth and fifth floors will house facilities for “auditing,” where a member of the church helps a parishioner find “sources within himself of unwanted conditions” and resolve them, according to the church's website.
The are also special VIP areas for celebrity Scientologists such as Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Kelly Preston, all of who reportedly attended Sunday's grand opening.
The church, which first applied for a building permit in 1999, had to pay Clearwater more than $413,000 in multiple fines relating to the lengthy construction of the building, plus five years of late fees and interest.
Though the festivities made much of the downtown area unaccessible Sunday, there were no major incidents or arrests at the opening, said Rob Shaw, public information officer for the Clearwater police. Franklin Street will be closed from Fort Harrison to the west side of the fire department building until Nov. 24 at 6 a.m., as will Garden Avenue from Court Street to Pierce Street, he said.
Claire Malloy, 19, made it past the plain-clothed church security and multiple checkpoints to be a part of the ceremony, but like many will have to return sometime later to tour the building. Malloy's pilgrimage from Los Angeles to Clearwater was “just a really cool way to come together with the church,” she said. From the shops on Cleveland Street to the iconic, powdery beach, Clearwater makes an ideal location for the spiritual center, she said.
“Clearwater has become so symbolic to Scientologists because everyone comes here for training,” Malloy said. “We have quite a presence here, and I think this will make Scientology even more visible.”
With any luck, the businesses of downtown Clearwater will become more visible too, said Mo Iskander, executive chef of the new Mixx Bar and Grill. It was no accident that Mixx opened the same day as the new Scientology building, Iskander said, as the 20- and 30-somethings that are attracted to the religion are an ideal customer base for the restaurant's international menu, bar and late hours.
“The church will play a big part in bringing attractions, festivals and nightlife to the downtown area, and we're just the first,” Iskander, a Clearwater resident, said. “The Scientologists are always well dressed, they look nice, and they keep our city a nice place. And they need to eat, too.”