By Harry van Versendaal
ASPROPYRGOS – Under the pale winter sun, a yellow cargo truck rumbles by and turns into a narrow road filled with potholes. Nearby, a ragged scarecrow balefully stands guard over a scrubby patch of broccoli. A little further off, an immigrant pushes a supermarket trolley filled with scrap metal next to a herd of sheep grazing by a metal container.
Welcome to Greece's main logistics hub, the Thriasio Plain. An ugly sprawl sandwiched between three mountains and the pungent Elefsina Bay, the land of Persephone has for decades hosted the bulk of the country's heavy industry. Now the area -- which contains the towns of Elefsina, Aspropyrgos, Mandra and Magoula -- lies at the core of a grand plan for an economic reboot of the debt-wracked nation.
After signing a deal with the Greek government in 2010 to run part of Piraeus, the country's largest port and strategic gateway for bringing Chinese goods into Europe and beyond, the China Ocean Shipping Company, or Cosco, is reportedly interested in acquiring a big chunk of land on the nearby plain of Thriasio to be used as a major freight and logistics center. Loaded with ambition, the project is expected to transform the entire peninsula.
But, alas, the reality on the ground paints a different story. A mishmash of divergent zoning plans -- part industrial, part commercial wholesale, part “undefined” -- Thriasio is scattered with warehouses, factories, scrapyards and legions of freight containers behind razor-wire fences. Connecting them is a labyrinthine set of unnamed narrow roads that frequently choke up, as cargo trucks must maneuver in limited space while street signs are mostly absent.
“It's a joke. We call it an industrial zone, but there's nothing that resembles one. When foreign investors visit the place, we turn red. There's no roads, there's no names, how can you expect to be taken seriously?” says Vassilis Argyrakis, a man in his early 40s who runs a family business that makes food products.
A black-and-white portrait of his grandfather who founded the company in the early 1920s hangs on the wall behind his desk. In 1980 the company moved from Piraeus to Aspropyrgos. “This was supposed to be a prime location, in close proximity to the the port, the capital, the railways and the national road,” he says at his office on the mezzanine of a gray cement building. More than 30 years later, Argyrakis tells a story of promises unfulfilled.
“For the past 30 years, no government ever took this place seriously. The state dumped all kinds of stuff here,” he says. Oil refineries, cement plants, steel factories and shipyards found a home here. Repeated environmental studies have found this to be one of Greece's most heavily polluted areas. No surprise local newspapers regularly refer to Thriasio as Athens's dumping ground.
Poor access is having an impact on the cost of services. Argyrakis says the cost of carrying goods from Piraeus to his company is higher than shipping goods from anywhere in the world to Greece. “It's a waste of time, a waste of money. It's totally counterproductive,” he says. His neighbors are not much help either. One of them keeps sending the police because noise from the factory interrupts his afternoon siesta, Argyrakis says with a smile. The police officer shrugs his shoulders, unable to do anything about it.
Bring the warehouses
Warehouses mushroomed along the northern side of the Attiki Odos ring road built here in 2003 to connect the capital with the coastal town of Elefsina providing a shortcut for northbound traffic.
“It was like they struck gold,” Andreas Papadakis, a young businessman, says of local landowners. “The price of land went up 1,500 percent almost overnight,” he says, as the area's status was switched to “undefined,” giving the green light for the construction of warehouses.
As co-owner of a document storage firm, Papadakis has been renting one of those warehouses for the past six years. Thousands of cardboard boxes filled with A4 documents are stacked on rows and rows of metal shelving nearly to the top of the 20-meter-high structure. A forklift truck puts boxes into place as a company employee feeds data into a laptop computer. Sitting at the company's headquarters at the foot of Mount Parnitha, he says running a business here has demanded a great deal of patience and adaptation. “We had to wait for six months to get a telephone line and even longer for a proper Internet connection,” he says. It took repeated calls to the local municipality before they eventually placed trash containers outside the company HQ, but a postman is yet to be seen.
Another problem is gangs stealing metal from the structures of the buildings, or even removing street drains, that they can then sell it on to one of the dozen of scrap merchants around here. Locals complain that burglars will break into a house just to take down the switchboard.
Beating the Leviathan
Municipal officials admit there are problems with the road network and anarchic construction. But they refuse to take any responsibility. Stelios Albandis is deputy mayor of Aspropyrgos which, thanks to the large number of businesses, is one of the wealthiest municipalities in the country. “The rot starts from the top down,” he says, blaming the mess on Greece's Leviathan bureaucratic state that holds local government to ransom.
A blueprint to regulate development in Attica, also known as the Athens Regulatory Plan, which includes plans to construct new highways, has suffered numerous setbacks. Albandis says that giving greater jurisdiction to the municipalities would save time and accelerate growth. “Zoning plans for every single town, from Alexandroupoli to Gavdos, has to go through the central government in Athens. This is extremely time-consuming. Getting a formal approval could take up to 15 years,” he says.
Looking down from the slopes of Mount Parnitha to the south, you can see the mammoth orange warehouse, property of the Hellenic Railways Organization (OSE), and the space that is to host the new logistics center. On a clear day you can see the Bay of Elefsina and all the way to the island of Salamina, where in 480 BC the ancient Greeks beat the invading Persian fleet.
A notch to the east, on Pier 2 of Piraeus port, the Chinese mega-cranes are working at full throttle, like huge blue monsters bending their necks to lift blue, red and yellow lego bricks below. Last year saw a rise in container traffic in Piraeus, making this Cosco's biggest container terminal in Europe and second only to Suez among the company's biggest transatlantic terminals. Figures went up 73.5 percent in 2011, reaching a record 1,188,100 TEU against 684,900 TEU the previous year. The way of doing business here has radically changed. A local businessman, who wished to remain unnamed, describes how truck drivers used to bribe port officials at the gates and then again inside the loading area. “Or they would be kept waiting at the end of the line for hours,” he says. The Chinese have changed all that. “Truck drivers now simply swipe their access card to enter the dock, load the cargo and leave the place.”
Cash-strapped Greece, which currently depends on bailout loans from foreign creditors to stay afloat, craves the deep pockets of the Chinese, while for the Chinese Greece allows them to hasten east-west trade while getting a foot in the continental door. It is estimated that Piraeus saves them about a week of travel compared to the ports of Rotterdam, one of the world's biggest, or Hamburg.
“Of all the southern ports, the one in Piraeus has the best potential for growth, situated in a country that the Chinese believe can be manipulated and controlled, with proximity to Central and Eastern Europe, and Turkey, which is growing faster than most northern and central EU countries,” says Nasos Mihalakas, a Washington-based foreign affairs analyst.
After taking control of the container terminal, Cosco has set its sights on OSE's 600,000 square meter site in Thriasio where storing goods will be cheaper than on the coast. Tassos Vamvakidis, deputy commercial manager at Cosco's wholly owned subsidiary, Piraeus Container Terminal (PCT), says the company would have to wait and see what the exact terms of the tender are before making a decision to bid for the project. “But [Cosco] would be interested on principle,” he says.
But some experts insist Thriasio is not necessarily essential in Cosco's business strategy. “Space will be needed in order to make Piraeus the entry hub that the Chinese have been talking about, but Thriasio cannot be the only available space,” says Mihalakas, an expert on Chinese trade.
This is perhaps why Greek officials are reportedly trying to woo the Chinese with more carrots. A draft law approved last month allows the creation of free trade zones, which would permit the transfer and handling of goods in certain areas without the intervention of customs authorities.
Another crucial step is completing a long-delayed project to connect the port to the logistics hub via rail. The government last promised to complete the project by mid-2012. But according to transport expert Fotis Fotinos, this too is set to fail, putting the completion date “some time in 2013.”
Repeated tenders for the Thriasio hub have been unsuccessful, as demands were deemed excessive in light of Greece's economic conundrum. And, of course, there is a lot of government foot-dragging. Even though Athens decided to relaunch the tender in 2009, it took a year before it took place. Then OSE's real estate arm, Gaiose, caused further delays by twice altering the terms of the tender.
“Precious time has been wasted, especially during the past couple of years. Today, no offers have been made,” says Costis Hatzidakis, who has served at the ministries of transport and development with the conservative New Democracy party, warning that if the logistics center is not operational by June, then Greece may lose crucial EU funding for the project.
Despite the setbacks, Hatzidakis still believes in the project. “The objective,” he says, is no less than “developing Greece into a major logistics hub in the Balkan area and Southeast Europe.”
Back in Aspropyrgos, some people voice similar ambitions. “If the plan came to fruition, this place could become a logistics center for the whole country, perhaps for the entire continent. I believe up to 90 percent of imports would travel through here,” the deputy mayor says. Booming trade, Albandis believes, would have a spillover effect, accelerating the transformation of the whole area, with big new roads and better town planning.
“Since we have nothing else to offer -- like cheap labor, R&D or good universities -- then we might as well sell our geographical position,” says Papadakis, who is confident the Chinese are here to stay. “Hopefully, this will one day become the Rotterdam of the south,” he says.
Until that happens, entrepreneurs will have to put up with the grim reality. At the Aspropyrgos food company, Argyrakis jokes how a group of German inspectors had to spend the night at a dodgy love motel after failing to locate his business.
Thriasio, he says, will not change before Greece's bankrupt state does. “The civil servants who make up the state mechanism are never subjected to any assessment. Our politicians are elected whereas our civil servants are permanent. The former hesitate to take any measures because they do not want to displease the latter,” says Argyrakis. “It's the same old story. But these things don't only happen here. Aspropyrgos is just a microcosm of Greece.”