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," Hibbard says.
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," says 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," says 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.
The mysterious newcomers made waves almost immediately with secretive, aggressive expansion and -- according to church documents seized by the FBI -- a covert plot to discredit their enemies and "take control" of the city.
Today, downtown Clearwater is an international Scientology stronghold and 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.
The empire's thumbprint on the downtown corridor is considerable and conspicuous, from the uniformed church workers on the streets every day to the two dozen or so Scientology-owned buildings and other properties in the low-slung skyline, many of them fully or partially exempt from property taxes.
Scientology's gem is the new seven-story Flag Building, which covers a full city block just down the street from the county courthouse where the Terri Schiavo legal drama played out a few years ago. Also known as the "Super Power Building," it will be the largest Scientology structure in the world when completed late next year and is expected to draw thousands more visiting believers to Clearwater.
By church tallies, 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. Scientologists now sit on the boards of civic groups. They own businesses downtown. No longer is it political suicide for local leaders to associate with them.
Hibbard, mayor of the city of around 110,000 residents, can hardly forget that the church is the largest private property owner downtown. His seventh-floor offices at a downtown investment firm offer panoramic views of the massive Mediterranean Revival-style Flag Building and other Scientology holdings.
"They are a large presence," he said. "To ignore that fact is like sticking your head in the sand."
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 more than 7,000 churches, missions and other groups around the world.
Scientologists believe spiritual enlightenment is possible by ridding your mind and soul of the accumulated, unwanted effects of this lifetime and innumerable previous lifetimes through an intense counseling process called "auditing." Auditors use a device called an "e-meter," similar to a polygraph.
Parishioners pay hundreds and even thousands of dollars for the auditing services and progress through various levels of "Operating Thetan." Those seeking to achieve the highest "OT" levels come to Clearwater, where the church inhabits the 80-year-old Fort Harrison Hotel and a cluster of other beautifully restored buildings.
Hubbard chose Clearwater, the church says, because it was accessible -- the Tampa airport is a half hour away -- and warm year round. There is also a story, perhaps apocryphal, that he liked the name -- "clear" is the state of being Scientologists strive to attain, and Hubbard loved the sea.
About 1,400 members of the church's elite staff -- known as the Sea Organization -- work in the buildings, church spokeswoman Pat Harney said. They live in former tourist hotels and motels around town that have been bought and refurbished by the church.
Despite the church's longtime presence and outreach efforts, Scientology is still mysterious and intimidating to many in Clearwater. The church's own polling in 2003 showed that a majority of local people who had no previous contact with the church had negative opinions about it.
And some sources approached for this story declined to talk on the record, citing fear of harassment by Scientologists. Hubbard urged his followers to "attack" the church's enemies, and many in town believe that the policy didn't die with him in 1986.
"There's an aura of mistrust still," said Ray Emmons, a former Clearwater police detective who investigated the church in the 1980s and still lives in the area.
Harney says the church "cleaned house" in the 1970s, removing anyone who espoused a philosophy of attacking opponents.
"Our moral code says 'Do not commit illegal acts,"' Harney said.
By many other accounts, the Church of Scientology has made huge strides mending fences in Clearwater.
The saga began when the church bought the Fort Harrison Hotel under an assumed name. Then, according to evidence seized later by the FBI, church officials plotted to discredit their "enemies," including the mayor and local newspaper reporters and editors.
Suspicion grew in the late '70s when Hubbard's wife and 10 other top church officials were convicted in Washington in a plot to steal federal government documents.
In the 1980s, the city held hearings to explore allegations that Scientology is a cult, but no action was taken. Clearwater residents protested the church. Church members protested right back.
In 1995, 36-year-old Scientologist Lisa McPherson died after being cared for by church staffers for 17 days in the Fort Harrison Hotel. A wrongful death suit by her family was a public-relations nightmare for the church for years until it was settled in 2004. Charges of criminal neglect and practicing medicine without a license were filed but later dropped.
Attitudes started a slow shift in the '90s.
Local politicians, recognizing a sizable voting bloc, started showing up at Scientology-sponsored candidate forums. Scientologists shored up their image by getting involved in many civic groups and community improvement projects. Outsiders were invited into the Fort Harrison Hotel.
A local watchdog group that dogged the church after McPherson's death moved out in 2002.
"Little by little, the barriers just disappeared," said Mary Repper, a political consultant who advised local candidates in the 1980s and '90s. "Now if you go to one of their events, you see more business leaders, more community leaders, more elected officials than any other event in the county. They recognize the church's value now, they see it was an integral part to the solutions of Clearwater."
Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala was one of the first local politicians to warm up to Scientologists in the early 1990s and remains friendly with church officials.
"They've become part of the community because they reached out and made an effort," said Latvala, who got a $250 campaign donation from a Scientology-affiliated political action committee last year. "It's really changed in the last 10 or 12 years."
Said Harney: "We've done some growing up, we've gotten to know people, we're better understood. I think it is more understood that we are people from all walks of life."
With a new causeway to the beach rerouting tourists away from downtown, Clearwater leaders are desperately trying to figure out how to fill the many vacant storefronts and attract a mix of people to the city center.
Meanwhile, Scientology continues to spread out in Clearwater, turning a former assisted-living complex into an upscale hotel for visiting Scientologists, fixing up a run-down apartment complex to house more staff and opening a new parking garage.
Though many of its buildings are tax exempt, the church paid nearly $900,000 in taxes on its properties in the city last year. And a church consultant in 1999 estimated that Scientologists pump more than $80 million a year into the local economy.
Still, there is disagreement about whether Scientology's large presence has helped the redevelopment of downtown Clearwater or hampered it.
New condo buildings are rising on the harbor and a long-awaited streetscape facelift is in the works, but some people wonder if a diverse downtown culture is possible with a Scientology building on nearly every corner and church staffers on the streets every day.
"When you have a mystery, people stay away," said George Kelly, owner of the landmark Downtown Newsstand.
Not everyone agrees. Omar Alexander, 21, who sat sipping a frozen coffee drink at the downtown Starbucks recently, said he isn't bothered by the ever-present Scientologists and doesn't believe they keep other people away. Every Scientologist he knows is a good person, Alexander says.
"They're working hard, doing what they need to do," he says.