Greece is expected to pick the winner of a casino licence for the highly-anticipated Hellinikon project by the end of this month. The process began on October 4th, when bids were submitted by two US companies: Mohegan Gaming & Entertainment Company and Hard Rock International.
Plans for Mohegan’s futuristic “Inspire Athens” casino and resort have already been released and illustrate how the old airport’s revitalisation will connect to the history and culture that already exists in the city centre. Caryatids, the female sculptures that stand in place of columns at the Parthenon, will serve as inspiration for the casino’s architecture. The glittering, mirrored structure totals 15,000 out of the 6,200,000 square-metre project and will feature 120 gaming tables and 1,200 slot machines.
The casino is only one component of this massive undertaking. Led by Greece’s Lamda Development, the revitalised area will enhance the coastal front and include a community space that features modern buildings and amenities, including a luxury hotel, conference centre, and sports facility.
The project has attracted the attention of foreign investors, including China’s Fosun Group as well as Abu Dhabi’s Eagle Hills. Lamda’s CEO, Odisseas Athanasiou, has stated that approximately 2 billion euros will go towards the construction of two office skyscrapers, the hotel, 800 residences, and a park that will rival New York’s Central Park and London’s Hyde Park.
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What Came Before
Hellinikon Airport bears substantial history. Constructed in 1938, it was occupied by Germans during World War II. Then in 1945, the United States Army Air Force took over operations, using it as a base for decades. Eleftherios Venizelos Airport replaced Hellinikon in 2001. Since then, the space has been in near abandonment for almost twenty years, aside from brief use during the Olympics as a softball, baseball, and field hockey field, and as housing for migrants during part of the refugee crisis that climaxed in 2015.
The project was part of a post-bailout agreement between Greece and its lenders, but desire to transform the area dates back to as early as 2005, when an international team of architects won a competition that focused on redeveloping the area – a prelude of sorts to the current initiative. In the following two years these plans continued, with bids for the project coming in as early as 2011. In 2012, Greek authorities campaigned to attract international investors for the commercial development of the space, despite citizen’s insistence that the site be transformed into a park.
Multiple obstacles led to the repeated delay of the project. The current New Democracy government, as well as investors, openly blame former Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his Syriza administration, as well as the bureaucracy of the country, for the slowdown. They claim that Syriza stymied developments for four and a half years, causing some investors – including Las Vegas-based Caesar’s – to lose interest in the project.
But other agencies were also involved in the holdup that occurred. Greek authorities at the time questioned whether some of the buildings on the site should be classified as historical and wanted to establish a plan for what should be done if antiquities were found on site. The forestry department also deemed a portion of the land as protected, which caused a nine-month slowdown. Meanwhile, the country was in the midst of an economic crisis that severely impeded growth of any kind.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ openness to foreign investors, coupled with a desire to improve year-round tourism, has helped further the initiative in the months since he took office. And thanks to an expedited regulatory process, Development Minister Adonis Georgiadis announced this past July that the project will launch by the end of 2019.
Benefits to Athens
The total cost for the complex reportedly stands at approximately 9 billion euros, but the project’s website extols the benefits that will come from this investment, which includes the creation of over 75,000 jobs during construction. Ten thousand permanent jobs are anticipated, with 14 billion euros in tax revenue generated over a scope of 25 years – along with the title of a “world class tourist destination” with a projected 1 million visitors per year.
While this may seem like a tremendous expenditure in a country that still hasn’t fully recovered from the crisis, Savills Greece – advisor to Lamda – believes that the long-term vision for this project will pay off on an international scale. “Our research shows that the complete project will generate the necessary interest in the international markets to put Athens on the world map as what we call a Global City. The overall attractiveness of the project and its unique waterfront location will create new demand both in the local and the international markets”, said Savills in a statement.
Greece, and Athens in particular, is familiar with these types of neighbourhood renovation projects. The now-famous Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, built in 2016 in the southern Athens neighborhood of Kallithea, was constructed thanks to a grant by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. Known as SNFCC, the centre hosts both the Greek National Opera and the National Library of Greece. Though previously abandoned, construction of this space brought local and tourist traffic to the area, hosting over 8.3 million visitors between 2017 and 2018.
SNFCC has also served as a beautification project and is currently one of the city’s largest green – and sustainable – spaces. It is split into several areas, including the Vegetable Garden, Sound Garden, Running Track, Outdoor Gym, Outdoor Games Area, the seawater Canal, Great Lawn, a Labyrinth, and Playground. All this combined has helped to drive up the price of real estate in the area.
Before the centre, Athens worked to renovate the former Olympic Stadium (also known as Spyros Louis, or OAKA) in Maroussi – a northern suburb. This stadium was constructed from 1980 to 1982, then renovated in 2004 for the Olympic games for 10 million dollars. It is now primarily used as a venue for local soccer teams and major concerts for artists like Madonna and U2.
Mitsotakis is keen to develop projects that will bring tourism to Greece year-round through a combination of culture and technology, that combined with economic development will help Greece modernise the sector. At the 27th General Assembly of the Greek Tourism Confederation (SETE), Mitsotakis was quoted as saying, “This is what the expansion of the tourism season is linked to. Because if tourists come to Greece in the winter, they will come to enjoy new experiences.”
Earlier this week at a working lunch for the Repositioning Greece initiative, the Prime Minister stated “Up to now, the promotion of Greece abroad focused on tourism. We must promote an overall image of modern Greece, a country of creative, economic and cultural development with a unique quality of life and environmental respect – a country that looks at the world with self-confidence.”