From culture to charities to humanitarian outreach, the last 12 months of teamwork have created a better community for all.
Clearwater, Florida, circa 2016. Crowds at the Capitol Theatre, restaurants on Cleveland Street, new residential buildings going up, the mega Jazz Holiday, a Taste of Clearwater festival, event after event after event pouring people onto Coachman Park, the Bluff and nearby streets, and even an annual Downtown Funk complete with an airing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. All of that and much more happened in 2016—a year that in retrospect shows Clearwater is boisterously, joyfully, prosperously alive.
Smaller than Tampa and St. Petersburg, Clearwater now nonetheless blazes as bright, literally and figuratively. After decades of economic slumber, after years of being listed as an “also,” the city is now beginning to bustle and boom.
There are many reasons for that, from sunshine and beaches to great events and a spirit that “this city rocks!”
But while many burgs and villes have similar plusses, Clearwater has something else: It’s the spiritual headquarters of a socially, culturally and civically engaged, can-do international religion, the Church of Scientology.
As the religion establishes new Churches across the globe, the secular humanitarian and social betterment programs it supports are extended further. The model for that growth is Clearwater. While it is a destination point for Scientologists worldwide on their spiritual journey, it is also a generation point for solutions that tackle and overcome the knotty social problems confronting civilization.
Almost every week—and often several times during many weeks—the Church’s 1926 vintage, wonderfully restored Fort Harrison religious retreat hosts meetings, conferences, gala dinners, plays, movie premieres and dozens of other activities.
One particularly noticeable addition to Clearwater has been block parties sponsored by the Church. At the November block party—attended by a cross-section of area residents—there was a mood of celebration about Clearwater.
As one property owner in the city declared: “Activities like this are making a difference. I love seeing all the people and being here.” Or as one of many parents said: “A great place for the kids.” A new resident, who just moved from Chicago, said she had witnessed “all the wonderful things you are doing. This is really fantastic.” Then this from another bay area resident: “I like the way different cultures of people come together at events like this.”
With an ever-growing staff, now approaching 2,600 strong, required to service the burgeoning number of Scientology religious and humanitarian operations at Flag, two additional office buildings opened in summer 2016: the 1927 historic West Coast Building, now faithfully restored, and the modern-era Flag Administration Building.
The most noticeable architectural landmark in downtown Clearwater is the 377,000-square-foot Flag Building, the spiritual cathedral of Scientology. Since its opening in November 2013, the number of Scientologists receiving religious instruction and services at Flag has soared to 5,200 on any particular day.
Clearwater’s Scientologists are not just visitors and staff, however. Over the years, Scientologists have moved to the Tampa Bay area, about 12,000 currently, in large part to be close to their religion’s spiritual nexus. Three schools based on Mr. Hubbard’s Study Technology serve children of Scientologist and non-Scientologist families alike. Scores of businesses founded by Scientologists—ranging from convenience stores to trailblazing high-tech innovators—dot the area’s landscape.
In 2014, a team of economists from Florida State University showed that the religion’s annual impact on the greater Clearwater area was just shy of $1 billion a year. That report was researched before the Flag Building was opened. Since the study was completed, the Church’s impact on Clearwater is far greater—and more than any other private enterprise or institution in the city.
Those numbers are important. But much more important are the people behind those numbers. When one walks into the atrium of the Flag Building it is an awe-inspiring, a gigantic, “WOW!” And what produces such exclamations? The core beliefs of Scientology are displayed in dramatic sculptures illustrating the trek of Man from a single individual through families and groups, nature and the cosmos—and finally in unity with the infinite, the eternal. The central sculpture in the Flag Building atrium is Man’s ascent up what Scientology calls the “Tone Scale,” from dead and apathetic at the bottom to totally free and empowered at the summit.
Actions emanate from the beliefs enshrined in the Flag Building. And that’s exactly what’s happening at Flag. A new surge of activism in 2016 was announced the previous year. Scientology ecclesiastical leader David Miscavige acknowledged the singular role of the Church in Clearwater, and then challenged his religion: “We have established international footholds to address drug abuse, illiteracy, immorality and human rights. We have worked in the hot spots of the world—the major cities of Earth. We now bring the full breadth of our programs to this city, the city in which we live, the city that is our home—Clearwater, Florida.”
The opening of the Flag Building in 2013 has led to a vast increase of Scientologists coming to Clearwater. The Atrium (left) houses sculptures depicting the religion’s core principles, while the Chapel (above) is the scene for Church services and ceremonies.
How about tackling, in Clearwater, one of the gravest threats to mankind? In November 2015, the drug abuse treatment program based on the discoveries of Scientology Founder L. Ron Hubbard, Narconon, opened a stunning 7.5-acre facility only a short distance from downtown Clearwater. Narconon Suncoast has been full to capacity since that opening, and 60 now-drug-free people graduated in 2016.
In another “win” for the city, April 2016 saw the opening of the new Applied Scholastics Clearwater Community Learning Center, a much-expanded version of an earlier facility. The Center is breaking through the ceiling of illiteracy and serving 60-70 children at any time. Among its more famous graduates is NFL player Leonard Johnson, who credits the Learning Center as a key factor in his success in life.
The Church of Scientology is helping to give Clearwater back its own vibrant self, both in the financial revitalization it has anchored and the work of the religion’s many charitable programs. There’s a synergy that’s developed between the Church and the community—what’s good for one is good for the other, and the good each one does is greater for the cooperation.
One example: the Greenwood neighborhood of Clearwater—suffering as many low-income neighborhoods do from crime and drugs—has witnessed remarkable changes through the joint efforts of residents, civic groups, police and religious groups including the Church of Scientology. Church volunteers have implemented programs to support literacy and education, and engage the community on a person-to-person basis, using the precepts of The Way to Happiness to raise moral values. Greenwood’s monthly crime incidents have plunged from 83 in July 2015 to 32 in September 2016.
The assessment of the Church’s activism comes from Scientologists and non-Scientologists alike.
“It is important to me to have an active role in improving conditions around Clearwater and the larger community and world,” said Kyra Jorgensen, a Scientologist since 1987 and a resident of the city since 1995.
“Most people want to improve conditions in life—this transcends race, religion and color. When one feels they are doing something helpful, their morale goes up and from there a person just does better in life. It doesn’t take much more.”
And as Joe Fattori, program development coordinator at Faith House, explained: “It’s beautiful to see that so many people come together to help each other and for such great causes.”