Island of Dreams: a major investment that never took off

As soon as summer started, businessman Lambros Apostolopoulos left Buffalo, New York, and headed back to Greece. Together with his children and grandchildren he plans to spend the entire season at his two-story villa on the outskirts of Eretria, on the western coast of Evia, tending to his vineyard, supervising work on his garden and looking out from his balcony onto the island that he never managed to rent.

The 54-year-old businessman is someone who likes to get things done, and fast. He left Greece for the United States at the age of 18 to study civil engineering. He got married the following year and had his first child before he was out of college. He dropped out and opened his own business as a contractor at 21, later designing and patenting scaffolding. In 1996, he founded the Buffalo-based company Safespan Platform Systems Inc, which specializes in bridges. And four years ago he attempted to lease from the Municipality of Eretria an abandoned hotel on the islet of Pezonisi, also known as the Island of Dreams, in the southern part of the Bay of Evia.

“The whole thing became tangled in a mountain of red tape,” Apostolopoulos told Kathimerini recently. “In the US everything functions according to a system. You put forward an idea, you get a yes or a no, and you proceed accordingly. In Greece you never know what lies ahead.”

The Island of Dreams is connected to Eretria by a thin strip of land and in the 1960s hosted accommodation, a nightclub and a small beach. Ownership of the assets on the island became ensnared in complex legal procedures. Under the 1967-74 dictatorship, the island was conceded to the Greek National Tourism Organization (GNTO), which was granted the right to utilize it for 75 years, with the aim of it being leased to businessman Ioannis Maniatopoulos. After the fall of the junta and rulings from the Council of State and the Supreme Court, the island was ceded from the GNTO to the Municipality of Eretria under a concession that runs through 2043. The last operator of the hotel, which was leased by the municipality, left in 2008 and since then the 52-room hotel and its 46 bungalows have fallen into a state of disrepair.

In October 2012, the issue of what to do with the Island of Dreams transcended the sphere of political debate and went global as Greece scrambled to raise funds by exploiting state assets. Former Eretria Mayor Vassilis Velentzas announced his intention to conduct an international tender for the lease of the island, making the international media. “First Greek island put up for rent,” screamed local headlines.

“Arab tycoons, wealthy Russian investors, as well as well-known Greek businessmen are rumored to be flirting with the acquisition of the first Greek island to be put on the auction block,” wrote another local newspaper at the time.

A few months later, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Velentzas stated that the competition was “somewhat of a litmus test.”

“How well – or badly – this project proceeds will either buoy or block other even more ambitious island and land development projects,” Velentzas said.

More recently, during a meeting at his office, the former mayor said that at the time he believed the process of leasing the island would take just six months.

“Unfortunately I was proved wrong as the tender was never issued,” he said.

The municipal authority before Velentzas took over had issued two tenders for the island but both went unanswered as no investors came forward. Later, Apostolopoulos expressed an interest. Even though he had been born in Zacharo in the Peloponnese, he grew up in Eretria and remembered the Island of Dreams in its heyday.

“It was the place to go for fun,” he said. “We went almost every day.”

The idea of leasing the island came to him in 2010 while he was walking through the grounds of the old hotel.

“I saw the mess it was in. It was like seeing my childhood dreams being destroyed,” Apostolopoulos said.

The scenes of complete abandonment are still there today. The hotel’s windows have been smashed, the plaster is falling, the rooms have been looted – in some cases even the doors are gone while in others there are blankets and pillows strewn on the floor.

“It was a jewel once. The trees there were planted by our parents,” said Artemis Kouri, the head of the Medussa volunteer group that clears the brush from the island every year to prevent fires.

“People come from time to time because they think the hotel is still in operation. When they see the state it’s in they feel just as bad about it as we do,” Kouri added.

Apostolopoulos had a plan to bring the island back to life and he presented his proposal to the mayor at the time, Amfitriti Alibate, and her rival.

“Both were encouraging,” he said. “The issue was not political and they seemed willing to help.”

His business back in the States had revenues of $20.38 million in 2012, according to Dopkins & Company accounting firm.

“I wanted to fix the beach and the beach bar, to renovate the restaurant and the hotel, and to build a theme park on ancient Greece,” said Apostolopoulos.

According to Nikos Kollias, Apostolopoulos’s attorney, he should have been granted the concession directly since the two previous competitions had proved fruitless.

Alibate also agreed that the concession could have been made directly but suggested that the municipal council lacked the will power to push it.

Her successor, Velentzas, said that although Apostolopoulos “had good intentions and a solid plan,” as mayor he could not allow a direct concession “as a matter of principle,” and so started procedures for a new tender. He added that another reason for his reluctance was the confusion surrounding the exact terms of ownership concerning the island and its facilities as well as the zoning restrictions, which could later be challenged legally.

Velentzas argued that the reason why the tender he launched was never issued was indifference at the Public Properties Company (ETAD) and delays from the zoning board, which is based in Halkida and has stopped responding to the former mayor’s queries since October. Zoning authorities in Halkida said that the Municipality of Eretria’s first query has been answered and that three more are pending.

Meanwhile, the board of ETAD, which is responsible for handling the assets of the GNTO, had decided in July 2009 to abolish the municipal authority’s right to issue a concession. The reason, according to ETAD, is that the hotel was not being operated as tourism accommodation, as the municipality had a duty to ensure. ETAD has twice asked for a decision on a ministerial level banning the concession, in 2009 and 2012, but is still awaiting a response.

The Municipality of Eretria planned to proceed with the tender nevertheless but was strictly rebuffed by ETAD in a letter demanding that it cease all activity in regard to the utilization of the island. Following a series of meeting with Velentzas, ETAD expressed its intention to launch a tender of its own, though this has yet to happen.

Somewhere along this convoluted line of red tape and snarls, Apostolopoulos simply lost interest.

“When you’re making an investment you want to work under certain conditions,” he said. “You need to know what steps lead where. This is something that is not clear in Greece and that scares me.”

Following the last local elections in May, the debate over what will happen with the Island of Dreams has not abated.

Alibate was re-elected and is expected to assume her post at the municipality in September, but she is not ready to discuss her plans in regard to the island yet.

“We have learned from the mistakes of the past,” said Marili Karaferia, who worked at the island’s bar in 1997-99. “I want to believe that it will not be allowed to be leased. We don’t want a hotel that we can only look at through binoculars. I would like to see it turned into a cultural park.”

A number of locals agree with her and argue that the municipality failed at its task.

“It is a prime slice of real estate, but it needs to be torn down and rebuilt,” said Nikos Smyrnis, one of the shareholders of Rest Club SA, the last company to lease the hotel on the Island of Dreams. “When we took over it was a ruin. The telephones and electricity weren’t working. We invested 750,000 euros.”

A new investor would need to carry out extensive repairs and renovations, as well as building a waste treatment unit.

Rest Club was evicted by the Municipality of Eretria six years ago. According to a court decision, the eviction was merited because the concession was made without a competition being held first, at a rate of 200,000 euros per year.

“When the Municipality of Eretria publicized its intention to lease the island, I received a call from a company in Larissa asking whether I had any intention to make any claims,” said Smyrnis. “I wanted to let it go, though, because I had nothing to gain.”

Apostolopoulos, who made it further in the procedure than the Larissa company, added that he had not discussed how much rent he would have had to pay to the municipality had the concession gone through.

“A lot of work needs to go into the island as it is today and the longer they leave it, the more it will need. I don’t know if its water or power supply are adequate nor if the telephone lines work,” he said.

Would he be interested in investing now if a tender were announced?

“I would like to get involved but I would have to examine the terms to determine whether it would be worth my while. The more time that passes, the more I lose interest.”