In the white-and-gilt Fort Harrison ballroom, the sounds of china and silverware and the hum of conversation are softened by flowered carpet and sunlit drapes. A quartet plays jazz softly in the corner of the room. The day is chilly, so the buffet savor of turkey and dressing, pumpkin soup, salads and breads, are comfortable and welcome. Attentive waitstaff hover and pour. The guests have filled all dozen tables, eight or more at each, and despite the full plates in front of them, they are immersed in conversation that’s more fascinating than lunch.
Today the ballroom hosts a meeting of the Tampa Bay Charity Coalition, an alliance of area charitable organizations who come to swap notes and network. The ballroom setting includes a gleaming oval parquet dance floor and windows that frame the city of Clearwater on one side, the Gulf on the other. The place is certainly worth a look—but most of today’s attendees make it a brief one. They are understandably more interested in each other. They have a lot to talk about.
Said Lisa Mansell, public affairs director of the Church of Scientology: “We are happy to partner with other nonprofits and make the Fort Harrison available to them.”
Mansell listed a litany of resources to help charities with their events, fundraisers and networking, not the least of which includes meeting spaces, audiovisual facilities, chefs and a professional event staff. “These can be costly,” she said. “So we often provide food and entertainment, as well as event space, at no cost.”
Ever since the Fort Harrison opened in 1926 as the “Aristocrat of Florida Hotels,” the 10-story Mediterranean-style building has been the focal point for many facets of city life; cultural, social and charitable.
As current caretaker of this Clearwater icon, the Church of Scientology has revived the Fort Harrison’s tradition as a hub of charity, culture, arts, education and community for area residents. In 2008-2009, the Church took on the task of polishing up the building’s aging finery, launching an 11-month restoration project that engaged 350 local construction workers for over 1 million man-hours to surpass the building’s original grandeur and bring the structure to 21st-century standards, including eco-friendly insulation and energy-efficient lighting.
As soon as the drop-cloths were removed, the building was pressed into service: From the close of that 2009 restoration project until the close of Clearwater’s 2015 Centennial year, the Fort Harrison’s auditorium and 10th-floor Crystal Ballroom were the settings for 93 community events.
In 2016 the Church accelerated its community assistance program by inviting an increasing number of nonprofits to avail themselves of the Fort Harrison, encouraging scores more to join in the use of the hotel’s resources, meeting rooms and auditorium. As a result, during the past year, 50 community events hosted more than 8,000 guests in the Fort Harrison—half again as many events as were held in 2015. These events have been created with, and for, over 260 community organizations that cover the gamut of life and social concerns in the Tampa Bay area: groups of veterans and educators; gatherings of local, county and state officials and judges; churches and civic organizations; and groups representing social, women’s, film, cultural and animal rescue interests.
One evening in 2016 featured a tribute to soldiers and sailors who are Purple Heart medal recipients. Another fête was a fashion show whose proceeds support charities. In November, the Fort Harrison opened its doors to a gala event for the Sunscreen Film Festival.
The organizations that have benefitted from the events throughout the year include the Clearwater Community Garden, Miracles Outreach, the Police Athletic League, Drug Free America, the We Believe in Me Foundation, the Bethel Community Baptist Church and the Humane Society of Tampa, among others.
Chief among those events at the Fort Harrison were the monthly meetings of the Charity Coalition, originally convened by civic-minded Scientologists. The Coalition by late 2016 comprised over 200 member organizations spanning the entire metro area of West Central Florida. At its workshop meetings, prominent speakers and community activists share experiences and expertise. Networking on both an individual and organizational level has strengthened and deepened civic resources in the Tampa Bay area.
At one recent charity event, speaker Maurice Mickens, one of the founding members of Clearwater’s Martin Luther King Neighborhood Community Center, told attendees: “I look out here and I see people who are doing things in the community, doing things together. And I love the word ‘coalition’ because that’s what works.
“We cannot do it alone; we cannot do it in the dark,” Mickens said. “We’ve got to say `thank you’ to the Church of Scientology for working with us. It also shows what can be done when you work together.”
Suzy Sofer, Belleair Bluffs city council member, said, “I’ve been to several events here and I’ve been to the Fort Harrison many times. You always do everything professionally … the right way, and all with the purpose to help others.”
Thirteen of the events hosted by the Fort Harrison in 2016 were fundraisers that amassed over $75,000 in proceeds—all of which funded the community service programs of the participating nonprofit organizations. By additionally providing food, décor, promotion, photography and videography services to boost the visibility of these nonprofits, the Church of Scientology made contributions to their success that totaled half a million dollars in 2016.
Jerry Wunsch, retired NFL player and founder of We Believe in Me, a charity that benefited from a 2016 fundraiser at the Fort Harrison, put his thanks simply: “You all are such good partners. I appreciate what you are doing and I thank you for having this event for us.”
In addition to nonprofits, the Church also reaches out to other religious organizations, holding an interfaith event in the Ballroom on September 21, 2016—International Peace Day. The 120 people who participated included speakers representing the Baptist faith, Christian Science, the Jewish faith, the Nation of Islam and the Old Catholic faith.
Less than a month later, an independent church celebrated a pastor’s acknowledgment event in the Fort Harrison; a week after that a Baptist church held a 93rd anniversary celebration in the ballroom for their parishioners and guests. The Fort Harrison made a gift of the food and services for these events, as a contribution to the goal of religious cooperation.
As one guest of the Interfaith Peace Day celebration, Muhammad Abdur-Rahim said, “We need to have more events where people of all faiths come together on this level. I’ve been around a long time and seen a lot of things, and mostly wars are created by religious intolerance. I can see the importance of having events such as these, bringing communities together to see that we’re all going toward the same thing.”
Pat Harney, public relations director for the Church of Scientology’s Flag Service Organization in Clearwater, explained: “It’s our honor to host such events and provide resources for other religions and nonprofits. It’s a wonderful and rewarding way for us to fulfill our commitment to the future of our community. We know that if we all work together, we can really change conditions for the better—and that helps everyone.”