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An exercise in futility

Oceanarium project still stalled

Posted: December 19, 2007

By Len Edney

Maybe it’s East meets West, a culture clash or just my lack of understanding of the nuances of the Czech political system. But I am left wondering how I managed to spend eight years and 33 million Kč ($18 million) of my Australian employer’s money trying to build an Oceanarium at a cost of some 700 million Kč, to give to the Prague City Council.

How could I get it so wrong?

Eight years ago, Prague City Council held a competition to choose a company to reconstruct and modernize the previous Stalin monument in Letná Park.

We entered the competition with a proposal to develop a giant aquarium inside the monument, complete with sharks, bull and manta rays, octopus, turtles, etc. and a walk through a clear Perspex viewing tunnel running the length of the main tank.

Though we would pay all costs of the project, at the completion of the lease period we would give the whole complex to the city at no charge.

A marine park in the Czech Republic, which is a land-locked country, should have tremendous appeal and support.

It did. We won the competition, and that is when my problems started.

The City Council somewhat belatedly discovered that the monument had never been registered. It was a “black” building (Stalin said, “Build a monument to my greatness,” and, for some reason, nobody argued).

Further, Letná Park is zoned in the city’s urban plan as a park, which shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Logically, as a park, you can’t have commercial buildings on it. Previously, Uncle Joe had said, “Build there,” and everybody said “Yes, Joe.”

This problem is easily overcome (even though we’ll need to cancel the competition), said the city. You can apply for a change of zoning and start the project in a couple of years.

Six years later, after submitting nine different studies in support of the project, meeting first one committee then another, discussing things with seven different city or Prague 7 administrative departments, we finally got the change of zoning passed by the city assembly in February 2006.

To show everybody’s commitment to the project in the interim, both parties were to sign a memorandum of cooperation, which we did.

In July 2004, we signed the memorandum because it clearly states that “both parties will strive to create conditions leading to the earliest realization of the project.”

It sounds better than marriage; we have a meaningful relationship noted on a legal document and not nervous promises exchanged in a church.

Following the memorandum we also received a most encouraging letter on Nov. 5, 2004, from Mayor Pavel Bém stating that he, together with his councilors and city officers, agreed with the project and were available to give us all assistance.

So we were all now “striving” and giving “all assistance” —what could be more positive? It was just like rowing eights —we were going to be pulling together.

Once the zoning change had been received we needed to negotiate the terms of the lease with the city council and its councilors, some of whom, due to elections, had changed from those we started with.

I like to think of myself as a reasonable man, understanding and tolerant, always prepared to compromise as long as negotiations are heading in the right direction.

So, looking always at the bigger picture, they asked for an escalator from the river up to the monument. I said no problem. They wanted a tunnel under the park for daily deliveries of bread and beer (at a cost 25 million Kč). Again, I said no problem.

Then I asked about construction traffic. They said, no construction traffic allowed through the park, find another way to build. Big problem.

The director of the particular department in charge of this issue actually suggested we use helicopters. My understanding and tolerance went out of the window, and I left via the door, slamming it on the way out. Inexcusable, but then I was a tad upset.

Meanwhile, of course, I have had every “lobbyist” approach my company to tell me that they know personally all the key people. These “lobbyists” said that for the right sort of money (ranging from 2 million Kč to 16 million Kč) they could ensure smoother negotiations and that agreements would be forthcoming.

As an Australian company, we are governed by very stringent federal laws against corruption of city officials. To our credit, I can say we declined all of these opportunities.

Stupid, stupid me. Had I said yes to one of those offers, we would probably be open by now. Hindsight has always been my strongest suit.

In early October 2006, we were approached by the city as landlord to supply them with a draft lease agreement. Not exactly the western way to do things, but then, “When in Rome (read Prague), do as the Romans do.”

Within three weeks, we had complied. We then waited three months for a response, but in fairness to city officials, the Christmas season did intercede which was a justifiable cause for delay. Even I took a week off from all that “striving” noted in the memorandum.

Some seven months later—late in April 2007 —we agreed in principle to a draft lease contract.

I actually sent the contract to my board in Australia who also agreed it, only for the city legal department to say “legally, it is correct, but we are not happy with some of the commercial arrangements agreed.”

I actually believed it was the city council’s place to finally evaluate the commercial terms, but not so under the Czech model of local government.

This brings us to the present day: In mid-October 2007, we received a contract from the city for a “future” lease agreement.

We were given until Nov. 30 to supply further and completely new studies. The term of the lease had been arbitrarily cut to 22 years, the rental was subject to a new valuation, and there was a requirement that we agree that the city could take the Oceanarium over under the flimsiest of pretexts, without paying compensation.

One of the really laughable clauses was that the city had the right to terminate the lease in the event its “public image” was damaged by any of our actions on the site.

This came from a city with more casinos per head-of-population than any other European city and prostitutes plying their trade outside a police station in the city center.

Currently, this contract for a future lease languishes because the city has decided that, with the National Library and the National Football Stadium both announcing this year their future hopes to build on Letná, there could be problems. The city is undertaking yet another study to discover the impact of these new projects on Letná and the surroundings. This “study” is probably going to take a year to complete, so we continue to wait.

Meanwhile, as reported in the Czech media, the mayor meets with the National Library lobby group at his residence on a Saturday morning, even though in six years he has been unavailable for us to meet.

It must be the fishy business we are in, but to me this is an extremely cozy arrangement which doesn’t bode well for our future chances of having the city honor its previous commitments to us.  

In the interim, and in fairness to the city council, they have offered alternative sites (I wonder why) but one of them is three miles from the city center and both need a change of zoning to the urban plan. Wait a minute; I’m getting a sense of déjá vu. Isn’t this where we started eight years ago?

 Now, dear reader, remember that we intended building an Oceanarium at a cost of some 700 million Kč on an old monument site which is in danger of collapsing in a few years. If you think again about how we plan to give it to the city at absolutely no charge, you may feel that the city is staffed and run by a bunch of incompetent idiots not to accept such a gift.

Not so. There are some wonderful people there who want to bring back the previous greatness of Prague and who work diligently at it. On the other hand, there are those who just want to play politics with the future of Prague or who have their own agendas.

This reminds me. It’s just eight years to the 2016 Olympics, which Prague is bidding for. Winning will bring the need for decisive leadership in the city. Come back, Joseph Stalin — (almost) all is forgiven

— The author is the Oceanarium project manager

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