'Disneyland' comes to Baghdad with multi-million pound entertainment park
(Peter Nicholls/The Times)
Al-Zwara zoo, in Baghdad, will be incorporated in the fun park
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Sonia Verma, Dubai
Llewellyn Werner, a California investor, admits he is facing obstacles most amusement park developers never have to deal with. Such as insurgent attacks and looting.
But when the amusement park you’re building lies in downtown Baghdad, those risks come with the territory.
Mr Werner, chairman of C3, a Los Angeles-based holding company for private equity firms, is pouring millions of dollars into developing The Baghdad Zoo and Entertainment Experience, a massive American-style amusement park that will feature a skateboard park, rides, a concert theatre and a museum. It is being designed by the same firm that developed Disneyland.
“The people of Iraq need this kind of positive influence. It’s going to have a huge psychological impact,” Mr Werner said.
The 50-acre swath of land, which sits adjacent to the Green Zone and encompasses Baghdad’s existing zoo, was looted, left without power and abandoned after the American-led invasion in 2003. Only 35 of 700 animals remained after the invasion. Some had died of starvation, some were stolen and some killed for food by Iraqis fearing that war would bring food shortages.
In the years that followed the Zoo and the surrounding al-Zawra park became an occasional target for insurgent attacks. But in recent months, families have cautiously begun to return for weekend picnics. Renovations have already begun on the zoo, with cages being repainted and new animals arriving, including ostriches, bears and a lion.
Lawrence Anthony, a South African conservationist who ran the initial animal rescue effort immediately after the invasion, has been hired to help.
Mr Werner, who has been sold a 50-year lease on the site by the Mayor of Baghdad for an undisclosed sum, says the time is ripe for the amusement park. “I think people will embrace it. They’ll see it as an opportunity for their children regardless if they’re Shia or Sunni. They’ll say their kids deserve a place to play and they’ll leave it alone.”
Ali al-Dabbagh, a spokesman for the Iraqi Government, is equally optimistic: “There is a shortage of entertainment in the city. Cinemas can’t open. Playgrounds can’t open. The fun park is badly needed for Baghdad. Children don’t have any opportunities to enjoy their childhood.” Mr al-Dabbagh added that entry to the park would be strictly controlled through tight security.
The project will cost $500 million to develop and will be managed by Iraqis. Under the terms of the lease, Mr Werner will retain exclusive rights to housing and hotel developments, which he says will be both “culturally sensitive” and enormously profitable — “I wouldn’t be doing this if I wasn’t making money,” he said.
“I also have this wonderful sense that we’re doing the right thing — we’re going to employ thousands of Iraqis. But mostly everything here is for profit.”
A $1 million skateboard park, the first phase of the development, will be opened in July. The project, wholly financed by Mr Werner, is meant to lure “the demographic of 14 and 20 kids standing idly by on corners who are susceptible to influence from the bad guys.”
Parts for 200,000 skateboards and materials to build ramps will be shipped from America to Iraq for assembly at state-owned factories and distributed free of cost to Iraqi children along with helmets and knee pads.
Mr Werner also plans to fly over American skateboards. When the sport catches on Mr Werner will start to sell the boards — which bear the slogan “Ride Baghdad Skate Park” in hot pink Arabic script — for cash.
The larger entertainment park, designed by Ride and Show Engineering Inc., will follow in phases, part of a broader strategy launched two years ago by the Iraqi Government and the US to attract private investment into the country’s 192 state-owned factories.
The factories were closed in 2003 by Paul Bremer, then the head of the Coaliton Provisional Authority, who believed that private enterprise would take their place. Instead, industries withered and half a million skilled workers were left jobless.
A task force headed by Paul Brinkley, Deputy Under Secretary of Defence for Business Transformation, is now attempting to revive Iraq’s factories — a task undermined by persistent violence.
But Mr Werner, whose company manages several hundred million dollars of equity, sees Iraq as a great opportunity. “Iraq to me is an open field. I have never in my life seen an opportunity with the potential that Iraq has with its skilled workforce and oil reserves.”
He has begun partnerships with several Iraqi factories in the last year, investing tens of millions of dollars in joint ventures ranging from laying fibre-optic cable near Basra to power plants in Kirkuk to production of nutritional bars made with “Mesopotamia dates”.
But the Baghdad Zoo and Entertainment Experience could prove the most ambitious. General Petraeus is said to be a “big supporter” of the project, according to Mr Brinkley.
“There are all sorts of investment opportunities all over Iraq. But it’s not just hydrocarbons. Half the Iraqi population is under the age of fifteen. These kids really need something to do,” Mr Brinkley said.
[QUOTE]The factories were closed in 2003 by Paul Bremer, then the head of the Coaliton Provisional Authority, who believed that private enterprise would take their place. Instead, industries withered and half a million skilled workers were left jobless.