AS Roma’S stadium flop (Pallotta era) and more…

(by Marcel Vulpis) – “In four years (in the 2016/17 season, nda) Roma’s new stadium.” This is what James Pallotta (who became president of the Giallorossi club in 2012) said at a press conference on December 30, 2016.

The topic was the presentation of the location of AS Roma’s future stadium (i.e., the Tor di Valle area) in the presence of mayor Gianni Alemanno at the “Bernardini” center (in Trigoria) and, by videoconference, of the president James Pallotta from Florida (inside the Orlando amusement park), together with the young Roman builder Luca Parnasi.

Since then, it has been an obstacle race passing through as many as 4 mayors and 2 presidents of AS Roma (first James Pallotta then the group founded by Dan Friedkin).
The American businessman Dan Friedkin bought the AS Roma group (for 591 million euros) from Pallotta himself, on the night of August 5-6, 2020, after 8 years of management by the owner of the hedge fund Raptor.

Then came the announcement, on December 26, 2021, 3,313 days after the start of the stadium project at Tor di Valle. In fact, on that date, the Board of Directors, already in Friedkin’s traction, approved the halt of the process because “the conditions no longer existed to confirm the interest in the use of the stadium to be built as part of the current real estate project relating to the Tor Di Valle area, the latter project having become impossible to execute.”

The news was also commented on on social media by former Roma president James Pallotta, who had initiated the project under consideration: “I feel terrible for Rome and Roma. Some idiot (you know who I am talking about) ruined this great project for everyone. Sad.” An investment, which, according to many insiders who worked on the dossier, burned through at least 60-80 million euros (between design, strategic consulting, etc.). And almost 11 years after that press conference in Orlando, there is still no sign of the foundation stone or the first construction site.

But let’s go back in time. On June 10, 2013, university professor and former PD senator Ignazio Marino was elected mayor of Rome, getting 63.9 percent of the vote in a runoff against the center-right candidate and outgoing mayor (Gianni Alemanno). On June 12, 2013, Prof. Marino, again, officially took office as mayor of Rome (meanwhile, on December 8, 2013, Matteo Renzi, currently the founder and leader of the “Italia Viva” party in Parliament, was elected secretary of the Democratic Party with 67.5 percent of the vote).

At the time of his election (at that historical period, the secretary of the PD, the reference party of the center-left coalition, was the “regent” Guglielmo Epifani, after Pier Luigi Bersani’s resignation on April 20, 2013), as pointed out in his personal website profile, Marino “found Rome on the brink of bankruptcy. In 2013, the city was in the “red” with a loss of 888 million euros, just as the public transportation system had a loss of 951 million euros. During his term, the leftist politician managed to balance both budgets.”
On October 12, 2015 (i.e., after a little more than 2 years), the Ligurian-born politician (now 68) resigned due to a false accusation of a scandal over some institutional expenses that had been made by the Five Star Movement (M5S) and Fratelli d’Italia (FdI) opposition parties, although he later withdrew his resignation on October 29. The following October 30 he was ousted from office after 26 of the 48 members of the City Council resigned. On Oct. 31, 2015, Ignazio Marino was replaced by a commissioner appointed by the government at the time (before leading up to the election of Pentastar mayor Virginia Raggi in 2016).

On this unpleasant surprise ending, former mayor Marino, who has long since returned to work in the States (again in the medical-scientific field), has repeatedly intervened in the newspapers (mainly of political slant), while on the reasons that led to the failure of the Roma stadium project at Tor di Valle, an integral part (in alternating phases) also of his political action (in his capacity as mayor of the Capital of Italy), until now he had not provided a precise reconstruction.

Entrepreneurship, business and politics, have been strongly intertwined in the course of this history, which sees AS Roma, still today, even with a new president (Dan Friedkin), without a “home” of its own (also because, in the meantime, the Friedkins have chosen to abandon the Tor di Valle area for that of Pietralata). For the record, the new star-studded owners (as well as Pallotta at the time) have also stated that they can deliver the new facility in just over 3 years (by 2026). But there are many who argue that this will not be the timeframe, and they are also waiting for the outcome of the awarding of the 2023 edition of the Expo, where the city of Rome is a candidate (along with the South Koreans of Busan and the Saudis of Riyad), to understand the related developments. In recent weeks, in fact, the most important entertainment festival in the capital of the Saudi Kingdom, the brand “Riyadh Season,” chose to invest on AS Roma’s jersey for a two-year budget of 25 million euros. An operation that has created strong unease in the management of the Bid of Roma2030, but especially in the “house” Municipality of Rome, clearly sided with the Foundation led by the experienced DG Lamberto Mancini (former general director of the Touring Club Italiano and the Fondazione Cinema per Roma, as well as CEO of Lingotto Fiere and Cinecittà Studios).

A victory of the Riyadh project, in fact, with the jersey of the Giallorossi club, sponsored precisely by a Saudi brand, could create, at the awarding stage, more than a few stomach aches. It is no coincidence that, for several days now, English bookies are no longer accepting “bets” on the victory of the capital of the Saudi Kingdom.

Returning to the subject of facilities, the Roma stadium file is on the table of the 4th mayor (since 2012 to date) called upon to act on this operation: namely Roberto Gualtieri (PD), elected “first citizen” on October 21, 2021. And it is not certain that at the end of his term of office (at the end of 2026) he will have managed to close this file, turning the idea of the new stadium into a real “urban legend,” of which, unfortunately, the word “end” is unknown.

About this and about what happened at the level of internal politics (especially in the PD), in the city council at the time, we talked extensively in this exclusive interview with former first citizen Ignazio Marino (pictured in the foreground)*, who strongly emphasized, at several points, how the failure of the stadium project in Tor di Valle turned into, among other things, a serious loss in terms of opportunity for the entire city (a 1.2 billion euro “exhibitions” plan vanished into thin air, due to a number of responsibilities, including political ones).

Q: Prof. Marino, going back to your experience as mayor of “Roma Capitale,” in retrospect, why is it so difficult to build a stadium in Rome?

A: Rethinking the city also means making it attractive to foreign private capital, which can be used to develop new infrastructure and services. A strategy that also brings with it new job opportunities – so necessary in Rome and Italy today. With this in mind, in 2014, I immediately listened to the president of the AS Roma football club, James Pallotta, when he told me he wanted to build the new stadium owned by the team. This was the largest private investment in the capital city, amounting to more than 1.2 billion euros. Of this, we demanded that 320 million be allocated to the construction of important infrastructure works for the city. The other resources were earmarked for the construction of a “business district” designed by one of the world’s leading exponents of deconstructivism, architect Daniel Libeskind, the same one whose project had previously won the international competition to redesign “Ground Zero” in Manhattan after the destruction of the World Trade Center Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. His very elegant design was based on a graphic elaboration of “ashlars,” the stone blocks of Roman buildings, and took up a drawing by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, which Libeskind was able to break down into 3 towers intended to recall the materials of ancient Rome’s historical origins.

Q: At one point in your tenure, it seemed to be going smoothly with regard to this project, then what happened?

A: In the fall of 2014 it suffered delays due to the slow decision-making of political parties, especially the Democratic Party. With the councillor for Urban Planning, Giovanni Caudo, we indicated right away that we wanted more than half of the 60,000 planned spectators (in terms of capacity, nda) to be able to reach the stadium by rail, metro or train, so as to avoid the automobile chaos that is created in Rome every time there is a match at the Olympic Stadium, which lacks a rail transport network. In early September 2014 I convened the Giunta to vote on the project and submit it to a vote of the City Council. The day after the Giunta’s vote, not only the oppositions but also several members of the majority, particularly from the Democratic Party, began to express doubts and conflicting opinions about both the idea of AS Roma’s private stadium and the site where it was to be built. The alleged hydrogeological risk became the “mantra” around which the project was wrapped in the media, and it was useless to repeat that the only authority in charge, the Tiber Basin Authority, had ruled out any such risk. But the path did not announce itself as simple: meeting after meeting, Mirko Coratti, president of the then City Council, announced that he was bringing the stadium issue to a vote, but there was always something blocking the process. Who knows what discussions were taking place outside the Chamber. The declaration of public interest in the project was then voted on Dec. 22, 2014.

Q: Wasn’t what happened to former president Pallotta, that is, investing millions of euros never getting to see the stadium come to life, in the end, in your opinion, an own goal for the entire socio-economic fabric of Rome?

A: James Pallotta, who had already started work on the executive project (in which he invested his own funds amounting to tens of millions of euros), also involving international partners such as the investment bank Goldman Sachs, was very alarmed by the incomprehensible delays. Therefore, he asked me for a new meeting, which took place on September 11, 2014.
On that occasion he showed me, commenting on them, a series of English translations of Italian press articles reporting the hostility of the Democratic Party: “Look, Mayor Marino, city councilman Panecaldo said…., …. Member of Parliament Lorenza Bonaccorsi said….” I explained to him that many Italian politicians would say anything to get a small photo and a few-line interview in the local newspaper chronicle and that, in most cases, they had not studied the technical documentation of the project. I confirmed my commitment to complete the City Council’s evaluation of the project within 10 to 12 weeks. Three months later, having taken this last step, with the vote in the Capitol on December 22, 2014, I immediately transferred all the material to the Lazio Region for the necessary evaluations. Ten months later, on October 31, 2015, at the time of my departure with the famous resignation of the PD councilors in front of a notary, the Lazio Region had not even convened the services conference to evaluate the stadium documentation. Administrative uncertainty is the worst condition for private investors, especially those investing from abroad. If the passage of time is not considered an important variable, there is a risk of driving away investors who do not approach Rome, which is considered an unreliable administrative environment, governed by logics that are not those of the competitive free market but are reminiscent of those of fiefdoms and feudal lords who seem all the stronger the smaller and more closed the fiefdom remains.

Q: More generally, what difficulties have you encountered in the course of your operation when trying to attract new foreign investors not only in soccer? Are we a technically and/or bureaucratically difficult country?

A: Bureaucratically difficult is an understatement. I will tell you an anecdote. In December 2014, I obtained from a foreign entrepreneur the promise of a large sum, 2 million euros, to restore the columns of the Ulpia basilica in the Forum of Trajan, a restoration to be completed with those private funds by the end of 2023. He not only kept his promise but also disbursed the first 500,000 euros within a week of our interview. Six months later I thought he had not kept his promise and wanted to check. After a day of research in the Capitol administration, I discovered that he had paid that substantial sum immediately, seven days after our interview, and had sent them to the Capitol’s bank account with the reason “as per agreement with Mayor Marino.” No one had noticed, so no one had warned me, and I, six months later, had to apologize to the donor for not even saying “thank you.” Moreover, I found out that the Capitol did not even have a bank account dedicated to philanthropic donations. All this is unfortunate because, on the other hand, Roma Capitale has exceptional professionalism, for example, that needed to carry out a restoration project as impressive and delicate as the one for which I had asked -and obtained- the support of the foreign philanthropist.

Q: If you could go back in time, again regarding AS Roma’s stadium project, what would you concretely change in your strategy? Were there also moments of “friendly fire” on this specific issue or not?

A: About the friendly fire I have already spoken. If I had to go back, I would summon the citizenship at the Olympic Stadium and I would list by first and last name all the politicians who for one reason or another created delays, obstacles, and worked not to realize such an important work in a transparent way, exciting for the fans and very useful to the economy of the Capital. In short, I would involve the citizenry in a participatory project outside the closed rooms of politics.

Q: What is your comment with respect to the management of the new mayor Roberto Gualtieri?

A: As you know I live and work in a clinical and academic setting 8 thousand miles away (in the States, nda). I can only say that in October (2023, nda) I was in Rome and found the city incredibly dirty, and to get home from the barbershop I had to walk over an hour because there was a public transport strike and it was not even possible to find a cab. From the next day I took my bicycle back and fell twice because of the potholes. In addition, I saw with pain the return of street vendors and expanses of tables even in the most prestigious places in Rome, such as near the Pantheon.

Q: Can you tell us more about the phrase you posted some time ago on Facebook” “kicked out.” Did you have it in for the PD of the Renzian period? How did they “resign” you after 28 months in office? Wasn’t a dangerous democratic “vulnus” created in this case?

A: The Democratic Party did not tolerate my presence on Capitol Hill and would have been willing to any action in order to get rid of an administrator whom they called honest but who did not meet the standardization that the Party leadership desired. Free and independent minds are not welcome and, above all, those who, instead of the party line of command, use merit-based criteria for the selection of the ruling class are not welcome. It had not even been four months since my election in June 2013 that, in a few weeks, I had initiated new solutions for the housing emergency of the poorest, closed Via dei Fori Imperiali to private traffic, closed the Malagrotta landfill (which had been open for fifty years), and already the local and national media were describing the conflict between the Democratic Party and its own mayor.
On Oct. 24, 2013, the newspaper La Repubblica headlined “Marino under indictment,” and the President of the City Council, politician Mirko Coratti (PD), warned from the national pages of that newspaper that the decision of the Council establishing new criteria for appointments in municipal bodies and companies could not be discussed in the Council because, Coratti threatened, “If we question it now, the budget will not pass.” That act proposed to select the top figures of the companies controlled by the municipality with instruments of public, transparent competition, to thin out appointments and to exclude former mayors, city and regional councilors, and parliamentarians: measures that did not excite the PD or the other parties at all. In the 28 months of my government, the political parties never allowed that act to reach the Council chamber to be approved, rejected or at least discussed.
But who could have imagined that in order to bring down the mayor of Rome, the resignation of an unprecedented and new alliance of councilors from the Democratic Party and some elected in the heir coalition of the Italian Social Movement (MSI) would be resorted to at a notary? An alliance that created shame and disgust among voters, but found support in the words of Marco Causi, an influential Democratic Party deputy, who on November 20, 2015 went so far as to declare that: “…it is necessary to involve the broadest layers of the population without distinction of political color. In Sicily MSI and PCI were allied against the Mafia.”

Q: In summary, last question: will we see you again in politics or, by now, is it an experience ended for good? If so, in what container? Have you had, for example, contact with the new secretary Schlein? Do you see a leftist PD again?

A: I do not know Secretary “Elly” Schlein (elected last March 12, 2023, nda) and she has never sought me out. The PD has given up its commitment to everything that makes us equal, from health care to public schools, and is divided not only on civil rights but also on social rights. It is a party in which the secretary claims (and I am convinced she means it) to be against armaments and against incinerators, but then wants to build the largest incinerator in Europe in Rome and votes to increase spending on armaments. As it is written in the Bible, in the book of “Qoelet,” “there is a time for everything,” and “today is not for me the time for this politics.”

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Autore dell'articolo: Ignazio Marino