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COMMISSION IS SLOW TO DETERMINE FATE OF NEW SND BUILDING

Theatre deal disintegrates

THE SLOVAK cabinet has cancelled a Memorandum of Understanding with US firm Truthheim Invest, which planned to complete and later operate the new Slovak National Theatre (SND) building.

THE SLOVAK cabinet has cancelled a Memorandum of Understanding with US firm Truthheim Invest, which planned to complete and later operate the new Slovak National Theatre (SND) building.

The cabinet cancelled the memorandum at a regular session February 23. The decision followed a resolution approved by parliament last month (January 20) and a subsequent cabinet resolution approved February 2.

Protests by local artists' communities, backed by politicians opposed to selling the cultural icon to foreign business interests, started a debate that led to the deal's demise.

Truthheim Invest planned to use the SND building for business purposes and merely rent theatre space to the SND's drama and opera productions.

Dušan Jarjabek, a member of parliament from the opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, said the cancellation of the memorandum is a "logical result of the pressure created in response to plans to sell the new SND building to Truthheim."

Those opposed to the sale of the SND building want the state to complete and operate the building.

Nora Slováková, spokeswoman for the Culture Ministry, told The Slovak Spectator February 23 that a special commission was meeting regularly to determine the fate of the SND.

"So far, the meetings have had a largely informative character. A plan for the SND building should be ready by the end of March, and at that time, Culture Minister Rudolf Chmel will submit it to the government," Slováková said.

She confirmed that several private firms had expressed interest in taking on the SND project. For example, Chmel has already met with a representative from Dividend Group and asked the company to present a project proposal.

According to Slováková, the ministry has not yet received a proposal from Dividend Group. She added that several other unnamed companies were still in play.

Jarjabek, along with his colleague Zuzana Martináková, chairwoman of the Free Forum party, are frustrated with the commission's progress. They have created their own alternative commission in response.

"Ms Martináková and I agreed that the situation was unsatisfactory so we decided to create our own working group involving people who are familiar with the [SND issue]. By the time the culture minister's commission prepares a plan - if they do - we want to have our own alternative solution as well," Jarjabek said.

Jarjabek thinks the state should finance the completion of the new SND building. The Economy Ministry, which prepared the original memorandum with Truthheim Invest, argues that completing and maintaining a new theatre complex would be prohibitively expensive.

The SND project has already cost around Sk3.5 billion. Construction has dragged on for almost two decades. Each year the state spends additional millions to maintain the construction site. Changing deadlines means the project has been burdening taxpayers for years.

Consequently, the Economy Ministry thought it would be better to employ a private firm like Truthheim Invest to complete the construction and take over administration costs. While Truthheim intended to use the premises for business purposes, the Economy Ministry felt it could create a win-win situation by obliging the US firm to rent theatre space to the SND. The Truthheim deal irked many, however, not simply because the state was selling off a part of its culture but because the Economy Ministry had selected Truthheim without initiating a proper tender.

One of the options being considered is the announcement of a public tender regarding the sale of the SND building, allowing private investors to compete transparently in the deal.

Eric Assimakopoulos, chief executive at Truthheim Invest, indicated that Truthheim would be interested in competing.

"We invested a lot of time and money into the SND project. If the government cancels the Memorandum of Understanding and announces a new tender, we may take part in it," he told the business daily, Hospodárske noviny.

Jarjabek is convinced, however, that the state should take responsibility for completing the SND building itself. According to his calculations, completion would require Sk400 million (€10.5 million).

"The theatre is not just a project for us but for many generations to come. The state should be able to find the money."

Jarjabek added that the Slovak government spent a comparable sum to prepare for the summit meeting between US and Russian Presidents George W Bush and Vladimir Putin in Bratislava.

"It was sure good to host the [summit]. But I just want to point out that if the cabinet can find the money to host this visit, it can surely find it for the SND building."

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