Drop Boards Not Bombs

Llewellyn Werner thinks skateparks could get Iraq's economy rolling

Aspen is about as far as you can get from Baghdad. There are no suicide bombings, no power outages, food shortages or military checkpoints in this upscale enclave. But there is a skatepark, and Llewellyn Werner points to it as he explains why his project has the potential to transform Baghdad from a volatile war zone into a shining hub of Middle Eastern commerce and tourism.

Werner is sinking a million dollars into this venture, with millions more in the pipeline. Because in addition to increasing security and stability in the ancient metropolis, he believes that over the next twenty years, the endeavor could stimulate development that will be worth a fortune to investors savvy — or crazy — enough to jump in early.

"Hey, do me a favor," Werner shouts to a teenager standing at the edge of the wide concrete course. "Go down there. I've got to take your photograph." Werner lifts a long lens up to his face. "And don't kill yourself," he adds.

Skateboard parks airlifted from California arrive in al-Zawra Park.
Skateboard parks airlifted from California arrive in al-Zawra Park.
Llewellyn Werner talks with U.S. military commanders and the mayor of Baghdad about placing skateparks in the city.
Llewellyn Werner talks with U.S. military commanders and the mayor of Baghdad about placing skateparks in the city.

The skateboarder, a high school junior named Knutzen Hoff, examines the 58-year-old Werner's cloth bucket hat, khaki shorts and leather loafers with some skepticism, but eventually drops in. He rides through the curves with a speed that suggests he's still a novice. But Werner, who admittedly knows almost nothing about the sport, is amazed, and snaps a series of photos that he'll show Iraqi government officials as examples of this thing called skateboarding.

When the skateboarder pops back up on the deck, Werner calls him over.

"Little did you know, but you're about to become part of history," Werner says. "I'm building these" — he nods to the skatepark — "in Iraq."

"Really?" Hoff replies.

"Yeah, for the kids of Iraq. What do you think about that?"

"That's cool."

Then Hoff pauses. He's grown up in Aspen, but even from his sheltered vantage point, he recognizes that Werner's plan faces a small hurdle: Nobody skateboards in Iraq.

"How are they going to get skateboards?" he asks.

"I'm delivering them," the businessman says with a grin. "The U.S. Air Force is flying them in on a C17. Not bad, eh?"

One of Llewellyn Werner's business associates likes to say that Werner operates at another level, someplace "between where the stratosphere ends and space begins."

Werner spends much of his time up in the air, jetting between Istanbul, Kabul and his home in Southern California. He's almost impossible to reach, and even his assistants in various offices in London, New York and Los Angeles behave as if contacts with their employer are like falling meteors: random and fast. While Werner is in Aspen, where his twelve-year-old son, a piano prodigy who studies at Juilliard, participates in the Aspen Music Festival, he uses his BlackBerry to keep track of his many projects in Iraq. These include everything from the installation of fiber-optics networks to constructing several large power plants to setting up international distribution for Iraq-grown dates.

But by far his most ambitious scheme is the Baghdad Zoo and Entertainment Experience, a massive project he hopes to develop in the heart of the city. The BZEE site is a sprawling, fifty-acre tract of open space called al-Zawra Park, which sits next to the Green Zone and contains the dilapidated Baghdad Zoo. Werner was able to secure a fifty-year lease on the property from Baghdad officials, at an undisclosed cost, and he's drawing up plans for amphitheaters, shops, cafes, a museum, amusement-park rides, a water park and other attractions. The idea, he says, is to create a sense of normalization after years of war.

"It's going to be a place for the people of Iraq and Baghdad to relax," he notes. "They don't have that now."

Werner estimates that the final buildout could run as high as $500 million. Last fall, he established Customized Cooperative Capital LLC — or C3 Invest — as a holding company, in hopes of luring private investment equity to further fund the project. But this may take some doing: While violence has decreased greatly in Iraq over the past year, insurgent mortar attacks and bombings continue to make frequent headlines. Delicate efforts within Iraq's government to negotiate the deep sectarian divides, as well as more frequent calls for the U.S. to create a timetable for withdrawal, paint a precarious future. And that type of uncertainty makes investors skittish.

"Iraq is a war zone," Werner acknowledges. "But it's transitioning into an economy supported by the world's second-largest proven reserve of oil." And unlike Afghanistan, "which is another basket case," Iraq has the resources to rebuild its infrastructure after decades of dictatorial rule, sanctions and post-invasion ravages. It's estimated that the country "will spend between $80 and $100 billion over the next four to five years rebuilding their economy," he says. "That's a tremendous entrepreneurial opportunity."

As Werner discusses that opportunity in a crowded Aspen cafe, customers seated nearby listen in on the conversation, drawn by his energy, enthusiasm and the sheer audacity of his plans. Werner's nature is one of "eternal optimism," says Jeff Wilson, a partner in C3. "And it's infectious. If it was a drug, it'd be more popular than crack cocaine."

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