By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Only five years after U.S. warplanesrained down “shock and awe” on Iraq, decimating towns and families, a few rich Californians have figured out how to counter the mortar attacks, suicide bombings and other acts of terrorism that continue to ravage the capital city, Baghdad.
Build an amusement park.
Not enough excitement in machine-gun fire and cars blowing up? Soon, thanks to some Los Angeles–area venture capitalists, Iraqis may have what every adrenaline junkie really craves — thrill rides. They may also get a museum and concert theater. There is talk of a water park. Plans are in motion to reopen the zoo, so people can look at tigers, monkeys and snakes. It is all part of a $500 million project set for development near Baghdad’s notorious Green Zone, where fears of violence are so great that fortresslike walls shield streets and buildings.
They even expect to give the “Baghdad Zoo and Entertainment Experience,” as the 50-acre complex will be known, a bit of a Los Angeles touch. If the initial phase opens later this year, it will include a feature every young Iraqi boy secretly longs for — a skateboard park, enhanced with 2,000 free skateboards for local children.
“Why would people put a skateboard park in Iraq?” a spokeswoman for the project asks, as if repeating a question that keeps coming up no matter what she does. “The Iraqi youth are aware of skateboarding. ... That’s a worldwide youth culture.”
Although its exact scope and design are far from complete, the multiphase complex has the support of U.S. officials, including the Pentagon, and appears to be a done deal despite a deafening siren wail from the critics. It’s a pet project of Los Angeles financier Llewellyn “Llew” Werner, who was California’s Secretary of Business and Transportation under former Gov. Jerry Brown.
These days, Werner is chairman of newly formed Customized Cooperative Capital, or C3, but he’s harder to find than D.B. Cooper. The company appears to be unlisted, and there’s no Web site. A spokeswoman, who asked not to be identified because the Baghdad project hasn’t been formally announced, offers only the vaguest sense of who the man really is.
“I can’t even get Llew’s bio from Llew,” she says. “He’s been so darned busy.” C3 is based in the Los Angeles area, she adds mysteriously, but it is “a rather virtual organization.
“What C3 does is ... [look] at places around the world that are a little too risky for traditional investment, but at the same time need development,” the spokeswoman says. Iraq is not the only challenging location C3 is eyeing. But the project has drawn media attention — a quick mention in the London Times a few weeks ago, followed by reports on public radio. C3 plans to assemble teams of design and construction experts who will work in cooperation with locals.
The plan’s not getting much media attention yet, so when L.A. Weekly contacted a couple of famous locals in Baghdad — two brothers, both dentists, who have blogged for years on their widely read Web site, Iraq the Model (www.iraqthemodel.blogspot.com) — they gave it a battle-worn review.
“Yes, it will be a soft target, just like countless soft targets in Baghdad ... campuses, marketplaces and residential areas, all under more or less constant threat of indirect fire — mortar [and] rocket attacks,” says Omar Fadhil, who clearly would like to see a revival. “Should we be concerned about the safety of visitors? Yes. Should we halt all investment [and] reconstruction projects because of that? Should we tell or expect students and shoppers to suspend their normal daily activities? No.”
Werner’s strange ideagrew out of a trip he took to Iraq not long ago with a business colleague. C3 is barely off the ground but already is in talks with Earth Organization, an international nonprofit group founded in South Africa, about ways to reconstruct the war-damaged zoo, the spokeswoman adds. And C3 is discussing the amusement park’s design with Ride & Show Engineering Inc. in San Dimas, co-founded by engineers who helped create Disneyland and the Epcot theme park.
The notion of plunking down a Disneyland in Baghdad is “a bit of a stretch,” the spokeswoman admits, saying, “we’re defining the appropriate scope of the work in conjunction with local officials.”
But the very thought of such a thing is drawing worldwide attention — most of it negative. Since the London Times broke the story, blogs and Web message boards have lit up like pinball machines.
A “Mickey Mouse idea.” “Goofy.” “Insanity.” “Ridiculous.”
Wolfgang R., posting from Austria, comments, “I know many Americans tend to be ignorant about other foreign cultures, but I never would have thought that anyone could be THIS ignorant. ... Hundreds of thousands killed ... daily bombings ... but a Disney park built by Americans to make money.”
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