- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 20, 2007

CLEARWATER, Fla.

Sure, says Mayor Frank Hibbard. It can be a little unsettling sometimes — throngs of Scientologists wandering Clearwater’s streets in their blue or khaki trousers and crisp dress shirts.

Sometimes, it makes the neighbors a bit uneasy. “When you come to downtown, no one likes being a minority,” Mr. Hibbard said.

But mostly, folks in this picturesque Gulf Coast city have come to accept that Clearwater is to Scientologists what Salt Lake City is to Mormons, what Mecca is to Muslims. Though not everybody is happy about it.

“I think there’s been a slow shift from a very strong adversarial relationship to a tolerance,” said Ron Stuart, who clashed with church officials as an editor of the now-defunct Clearwater Sun in the ‘70s.

“There’s still a lot of people in the city who don’t trust them and wish they weren’t there,” said Mr. Stuart, who now works for the county court system. “But you can’t deny that they contribute, particularly to the economy. Without them, there probably wouldn’t be a downtown.”

It’s all unfolded over more than 30 years, since 1975, when L. Ron Hubbard came ashore. The science fiction writer and his associates, who for years operated from aboard a yacht at sea, secretly bought a historic hotel in a dying downtown with a vision of making Clearwater a spiritual home for his Church of Scientology.

Mr. Hubbard established the Church of Scientology in 1954, based on theories he conceived in his best-selling book, “Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health.”

Today, the Los Angeles-based church claims 10 million members and downtown Clearwater is an international Scientology stronghold, a destination for elite members (including celebrity devotees like Tom Cruise and John Travolta) who come from all over the world for the highest levels of the church’s spiritual training.

Scientology’s gem is the new seven-story Flag Building, which covers a full city block. Around 12,000 Scientologists live and work in and around Clearwater now, the old attitudes and prejudices in town softened by the passage of time and aggressive community outreach by the church.

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