ATHENS – It took longer than he promised – set back by more delays and then the COVID-19 pandemic, but Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis was there to watch bulldozers start razing buildings to begin the 8-billion euro ($8.99 billion) development of the abandoned Hellenikon International Airport.
He was at the kick-off ceremony he hoped to hold by the end of 2019 after winning July 7 snap elections that year and ousting the anti-business Radical Left SYRIZA which buried the project for 4 ½ years, its hard-core elements opposed to foreign investment.
It took nine years to get that far since the first bids were made, 10 years after the airport closed and a new international airport opened a little more than 40 kilometers, or almost 25 miles from the Greek capital's center.
“It is encouraging that amid conditions of economic hardship, the country's most emblematic investment (project) as of today starts to become real,” Mitsotakis told reporters at the event as bulldozers began work, said Kathimerini.
“We are drawing a line under yesterday and embark on a more hopeful future,” he said adding that the project, which he described as “possibly the largest project in the Mediterranean,” will in its full development generate around 80,000 jobs.
That came six weeks after a demolition order was issued for almost 450 structures on the 400-hectare (988-acre) site that is overrun with weeks, dilapidated buildings and rusting airplanes left when it closed in 2001.
The project is being done by the Greek company Lamda Development, which bought out its partners, China's Fosun and Abu Dhabi's Eagle Hills and has been anxious to get work going on the site.
Lamda plans to turn the seaside plot into a complex of luxury residences, hotels, a yachting marina and casino and a park far smaller than the first envisioning of the site as Europe's largest urban park before the country's economic crisis hit.
Don't expect to go there anytime soon as the development will take years to complete but, when done, will be the last link along Athens' coast from renovations at the port of Piraeus by the Chinese company COSCO which operates it and the jewel of the $861 million Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center as the hub between them.
The first phase of the work to demolish buildings and structures will take about 3 ½ years, until the end of 2024, while construction will also go on simultaneously to build two hotels, several high-rise buildings, luxury developments and a casino, the license given to Connecticut-based Mohegan Gaming & Entertainment over Hard Rock's bid.
The landmark project, part of a post-bailout agreement between Greece and its international creditors, was beset by bureaucracy, legal battles, environmentalists resistance and SYRIZA throwing up a political wall to stop it.
“Today we make a start, but there is a long road ahead of us,” said Mitsotakis, adding that it could take up to 10 years for the development to be finished, calling it “possibly the largest project in the Mediterranean.”
After his brief speech on site, bulldozers began pulling down one of the more than 200 abandoned buildings.
The revamping of the airport has been tied up in court cases for nearly two decades, with critics of the project citing environmental and heritage concerns. Ancient cemeteries and a prehistoric settlement have been found in the area. In 2018, the Supreme Court approved the project, but delays hit.
Of the new jobs to be created by the project, around 10,000 are expected to be generated during the construction phase, Mitsotakis said.
“It will be a modern, ecological project that is friendly towards the environment,” Mitsotakis said. “A project that will symbolize the new Greece, as I believe we all envisage it,” he added.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)