1 AUGUST 2001


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Playing for high stakes

DAVID LINDSAY SPEAKS TO TONY CASSAR – CHAIRMAN OF THE CASSAR GROUP, WHICH IS A MEMBER OF THE PORT COTTONERA CONSORTIUM. MR CASSAR GIVES A DETAILED ACCOUNT OF HOW THE CASINO DI VENEZIA, WHICH OPENS TO THE PUBLIC TOMORROW, CHOSE TO MAKE A MULTI-MILLION LIRI INVESTMENT IN THE COTTONERA AREA AND THE HURDLES FACED BY THE CONSORTIUM DURING THE RENOVATION OF SCAMPS PALACE. MR CASSAR EXPLAINS THAT THE CASINO IS THE CORNERSTONE OF THE COTTONERA DEVELOPMENT PROJECT.


How did Casino di Venezia become interested what the Port Cottonera Consortuim was proposing?
It all started through a contact in Italy who paved the way for discussions with the Casino di Venezia. We were thrilled with the idea for many obvious reasons, especially since the Casino di Venezia is renowned as the best in Europe.

We had always thought that Vittoriosa Creek could become another little Venice and, while there were at least ten other interested parties from as far afield as Israel and the United States, we were extremely thrilled that the most interested party was, in fact, Casino di Venezia.

We gave the matter a good deal of homework and we decided to meet them. After one trip to Venice, we realised that there was enough base to proceed. In fact, by the time we had arrived in Venice we were pleased to hear that Professor Corradini, Casino di Venezia’s Chairman, had already obtained a budget from the Municipal of Venice – as the Casino di Venezia is actually owned by the Council of Venice. That was an extremely important development in itself.

It’s true that at the time the budget was marked at just over Lm2 million, which actually wasn’t enough and they had to practically double it, but when we showed them our feasibility studies, we felt there was adequate interest for them to visit Malta and discuss the matter further.

They came down the following week and it was apparent that the interest was there. Don’t forget that in Italy there are only four casinos, there are no licenses and a lot of this type of business coming to Malta does come from Italy. We could, accordingly, easily understand why they were so eager to invest in Malta. They obviously wanted a greater share of the Italian market. While Italian laws governing casinos are not exactly prohibitive, there are no additional licenses available to operate other casinos.

We started the negotiation process, during which Casino di Venezia representatives had come down to Malta several times. However, the only thing they insisted upon, which was also our main hurdle, was that they wanted to open the casino by 1 August this year. The trip during which this was brought up was in December of last year and by the time we had concluded negotiations, it was already January of this year.

No one had really imagined that someone like the Casino di Venezia would come over and invest in Cottonera. The development was unexpected. In fact, the first time we mentioned the Casino di Venezia to Minister Zammit Dimech, he was extremely pleased but perhaps he was a bit sceptical over their participation.

What restrictions were imposed upon you, as the developers of such a historic site?
Casino di Venezia representatives came down to Malta about another six times, lending their expertise and determining how they could manage due to the restrictions that were in place. Such restrictions had to do with the fact that the building is an old palace, so there was no possibility of chasing the walls and carrying out similar works. They also brought down their own people to ensure that the cameras and CCTV system could be set properly in place.

However, the risk to the consortium was high because they had imposed a potential penalty on us – if we hadn’t handed over the casino by 1 July, the penalty would have been disastrous. We would have lost the contract and fiscal penalties would have been imposed. It would have been disastrous for us, our shareholders and for Malta.

However, we got started on the project quickly. The architect in charge was Dr Edwin Mintoff and, together with our Mario Camilleri - one of the directors - and Joseph Bondin, the team began issuing tenders and other preliminary motions. We must admit that in just four and a half months all the local contractors managed in good stead.

The project had many inherent difficulties such as the fact that the palace had to have raised flooring, which is not very common in Malta. The upper floor, for example, is all raised flooring, which we had to use simply because we could not make changes to the walls. Accordingly, all the services pass underneath the flooring. When you walk on the floor, you have to realise that you are walking some 20 inches above the concrete.

Being such an old and historic place, we were very restricted in making changes to both the façade and the interior and we had the Planning Authority right behind us at all times. The design of the casino has kept all the original aspects of the palace and, in fact, it has now been returned to its former glory – at least that’s how the Prime Minister described the works on Monday.

What was the total cost of this section of the Cottonera project?
The project cost the consortium a total of Lm1.6 million for the casino only. The Casino di Venezia, meanwhile, spent something over Lm3 million.

Considering the fact that, by contract, the government had imposed that the consortium spend at least Lm8 million on the entire project and knowing that the casino element alone cost some Lm5 million, our target is in the pipeline.

That much has already been spent simply on the casino, without the forthcoming retail outlets, car parks, the hotel and other installations. There will also be restaurants, banking facilities, telephone companies and spaces for offices as well.

However, without the casino, the project would have never worked. It was the biggest hurdle for us. Now with the casino in operation, everybody appears to be knocking on our door.

The first time we set foot in Scamps Palace, it was an utter disaster. The building was abandoned after the British had left the islands and, contrary to other places that were used by Customs, Scamps Palace was left abandoned and used as some sort of medical store, judging by the remnants we came across.

Squatters has also obviously made their way in and the main entrance had become some sort of garage for abandoned vehicles, we had to remove eight old cars.

Throughout the conversion, we were very faithful to the original design of the palace. The wooden doors, for example, are exactly the way they used to be before, they are simply new ones, but are otherwise identical – even the window panes were left perfectly intact. We did not alter the architecture of the building at all. It would have been unfair to the nation to disrupt the building.

All the casino furnishings were ordered for the Casino di Venezia of Malta. In fact, if you had to go there, you would notice that there is embroidered on each and every table ‘Casino di Venzia Malta’. Everything was bought brand new, except for the few antiques they had purchased locally to place in the lobby.

We were extremely pleased with the Casino di Venezia’s professional way of doing things. For instance, the minute we signed the agreement, they asked us to give them a place so they could start immediately training local personnel to work in the casino, because they are of a certain class. So far they have employed 92 Maltese, who have had lessons every day and were being paid for every day of training. Some of them were even brought to Venice to view the inner workings of one of their casinos. It has truly been a pleasure to work with them.

Where does the project progress from here?
Now complete, the casino is the first stone. I look at this particular section of the project as being very important, as we will now undoubtedly attract the elite clients from Italy. I had always held that the Cottonera project would be a success, but now I am 100 per cent convinced.

At the moment we are negotiating for the hotel and we are very close to striking an agreement. However, we have nothing in black and white as yet. If we do manage to strike a deal soon with one of the various Italian companies that are interested in the hotel, the project’s timings would be immaculate.

The hotel is part of the casino and, in fact, will overlap the casino. There is also the marina, the outlets – all of which will make the Cottonera Creek a beautiful place. The way I see it, the three most beautiful places we have in Malta are Cottonera, Valletta and Mdina.

How are relations between your fellow consortium and when do you foresee a final conclusion to the project as a whole?
We are trying to finish off the entire project within three years. One must understand that there are two consortia involved in the project, we are the Port Cottonera Consortium and then there is the Waterfront Consortium.

We are responsible for the foreshore – the casino, hotel, outlets, the car park – while the other consortium is responsible for the marina, yacht club and they are also building apartments on the Kalkara side. I think the project will be a resounding success, once both consortia have done their respective jobs.

We have a good working relationship with no conflicts at all and we work very closely to achieve a common goal.



The Business Times, Network House, Vjal ir-Rihan San Gwann SGN 07
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