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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.
Portable skateparks in al-Zawra Park.
Portable skateparks in al-Zawra Park.
Llewellyn Werner
Llewellyn Werner

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."

Sure enough, Werner is soon deep in conversation with another customer about her injured dog and then, somehow, Los Angeles, a topic he knows well since he grew up in the San Fernando Valley. In his teens, he worked as a reporter for United Press International, covering the Los Angeles Community College board of trustees campaign of a then-unknown young politician named Jerry Brown. When Brown was later elected California Secretary of State, he asked Werner to join his staff. The position paid off when Brown won the governor's seat in 1975; Werner, then 24, was elevated to a cabinet job in the state's department of business, transportation and housing. He left the Brown administration three years later to attend graduate school and co-found Operation California, an aid organization that airlifted medicine and food to Cambodia after the Pol Pot regime. The outfit grew in scope and stature, eventually taking on the name Operation USA, and is now a well-known international disaster-relief group with such high-profile boardmembers as former Colorado senator Gary Hart. In the early '80s, Werner again joined Brown as an advisor before leaving to become president of Crown Coach International, a bus manufacturing company he eventually sold to a division of General Electric.

After that, he went into private equity. But he maintained close ties to the Democratic Party, often donating large sums to candidates. Today he's a supporter of Barack Obama and, like the Democratic presidential nominee, says he was vehemently opposed to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. And the post-invasion performance has been "an American embarrassment," he says. "We won the war and didn't have a Plan B. We basically presided over the chaos."

But unlike Obama, who has frequently called for a timetable for troop withdrawal, Werner doesn't think the U.S. is going anywhere until Iraq is stable, and that could take years. "I am a Democrat," he explains. "I don't like the war. I certainly had nothing to do about getting in there, but I would like to see a way for America to get out. And the only way I know how to get out, having been in a lot of trouble spots around the world myself, is to create employment and economic opportunity."

Werner visited Baghdad last year at the behest of Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Paul Brinkley, a former Silicon Valley executive who's heading the U.S. effort to bring economic development to the war-torn country. Brinkley's main goal has been to revive the 200 state-owned factories that were shut down in 2003 by Paul Bremer, then head of the Coalition Provisional Authority. The move, which left more than half a million people unemployed, was one of several drastic decisions Bremer made that year that critics say turned disgruntled and idle Iraqis toward the insurgency.

The Pentagon now sees creating jobs as a key factor in its counter-insurgency strategy and has been desperately trying to attract private investors through Brinkley's Task Force to Improve Business and Stability. Werner is one of a handful of businesspeople who have taken up the cause, searching for Iraqi companies to support or setting up new companies altogether. His fiber-optics company is building Iraq's "fiber-optics backbone" by laying 3,000 kilometers of cable into neighboring Jordan and Syria. Another firm is constructing two 500-megawatt power plants to provide much-needed energy. Still another is reviving a former truck factory.

As one of the only American businessmen doing this type of development work in Iraq, Werner sees himself as a kind of capitalist commando fighting the war through business deals. Sometimes he's searching for Iraqi businesses that have potential but lack proper distribution networks or resources; at other times, he identifies a need and looks to build an industry around it. And at all times, he's looking for Iraqi partners to operate and hold majority stakes in the companies. "First, it's their country," he explains. "Second, it's smart. If it's their country and they own it, they are going to make sure it succeeds."

C3 isn't so much a company as a collection of partners that Werner has assembled for strategic reach into different realms, and its investors are "from other parts of the world," he says. One consultant, David Scantling, is a former Department of Defense expert on telecommunications expansion in Iraq. Retired major general Frank Schober is C3's vice president for military affairs. Other advisors include Iraqi expatriates, high-risk insurance experts and international real-estate developers.

But in the end, C3 is all Werner. He occupies a curious space, working with the American military, the Iraqi government and the citizenry, each with their own business customs and agendas. The Marines provide him with security as he ventures out of the Green Zone to Karbala, where he is investing in date plantations. Iraqi officials provide him with connections and legitimacy as he heads to Iskandariya, south of Baghdad, to use his past experience running Crown Coach to look into investing in a struggling bus factory. He first visited it in the '80s, when he was running Crown Coach.

"I call him an adventure capitalist," Schober says of Werner. "He disappears on these ventures and we have to remind him to stay in touch with us because there is no way to get ahold of him."

Jeff Wilson, C3's head of sport, is a marketing executive who once lived next door to Werner in Beverly Hills. The two often discussed business ventures, but nothing came to fruition until Wilson happened to call Werner earlier this year and heard about his work in Iraq. After reading a special dossier on the task force's mission, Wilson concluded that there was something missing from the reconstruction plan.

"There wasn't anything in the industries that would appeal to young people," says Wilson, who'd previously designed ad campaigns for Grind King, a skateboard company. He suggested that Werner bring "action sports" to Iraq.

"Lew didn't know a damn thing about skateboarding," notes Wilson. "It's now a global sport. Kids know about it. I told him, 'There's some freedom that comes from getting on a skateboard and learning a trick, getting air, flying and doing all that stuff.' I think it transcends everything — religion, race, creed. Kids skate."

Werner was intrigued. After he told his friend to come up with a proposal, Wilson phoned Julio Deulofeu, an old business partner who currently does distribution for Oakland-based skateboard-ramp manufacturer Freshpark, and they created a plan. Werner went for it immediately.

"I'm not fighting for the minds of youths with bullets," he says. "I'm fighting with skateboards."

In April, Werner sat on a Persian rug in a sunny parlor room of a government building in central Baghdad, explaining his plans on how to save Iraq. Reclining on pillows, Sabir al-Isawi, mayor of the ancient city, listened intently, as did three U.S. military commanders in full fatigues. Isawi, a former computer engineer, has survived three assassination attempts since he was appointed mayor in 2005 — a much better average than the numerous Baghdad City Council members who have been gunned down, blown up or disappeared in recent years. Spread between the men was a series of detailed satellite maps showing the dense, twisted streets of Baghdad with markings designating possible locations for skateboard parks.

The idea was to airlift four pre-fabricated "pocket parks" into the Coalition-controlled Green Zone. U.S. troops would then load each set of rails and ramps onto transport vehicles so that the parks could be "quickly deployed" into "strategic locations" throughout Baghdad, Werner explained. Adolescent males are the most susceptible to influence by violent extremists, the men agreed, and five years of occupation and civil war have left few recreation facilities intact. Activities like skateboarding could attract young people who otherwise might spend their time learning bomb-making skills from al-Qaeda operatives.

But first they had to decide where to put the skateparks. With a population of six million, metropolitan Baghdad has close to ninety distinct neighborhoods overlaid by fifteen major political subdivisions. As the insurgency raged through 2006 and 2007, the districts with mixed Shiite and Sunni residents became homogenized, creating even greater separation between the feuding branches of Islam. Should the skateparks be divided evenly between Shia and Sunni neighborhoods? Could they be placed on the borders between segregated zones? After identifying areas that might strike this balance, the men focused on the more difficult task of finding specific spots where the parks could be installed. Baghdad's centuries-old architecture and street layout meant few flat, open surfaces appropriate for a sport that started just thirty years ago in the ultra-paved landscape of Southern California. Still, they managed to identify many plazas that could be used, as well as open areas where Iraqi laborers could be hired to construct pads of concrete.

The pocket parks are designed to introduce kids in the neighborhoods to skateboarding. If the parks work as Werner envisions, they will function as a "natural feeder system" for a larger, permanent skatepark of half-pipes and concrete bowls designed by Los Angeles-based Spohn Ranch that he plans to build in al-Zawra Park. He also wants to create a 100-seat theater where professional skateboarders can offer demonstrations and skateboarding videos will be shown, to make sure the sport is "integrated into the social fabric of Iraq," he says.

"I'm very fond of this project, because I think it will get immediate traction," Werner adds. "It'll get the Iraqi youth into a sport which is healthy, give them something to do, something to compete with, look forward to. It will allow them to have a better connection with U.S. soldiers, many of whom are seventeen to twenty, who grew up on skateboards."

Werner estimates that he'll spend a million dollars on the pocket parks and boards, which will be available to Iraqis free of charge. He considers that amount a relatively low-cost "down-payment" that will allow him to solicit support for BZEE, his multimillion-dollar entertainment zone. If he can show skeptical investors and wary locals that something as brazenly Western as a skateboard park can be successful in Iraq, then why not an American-style amusement park? But the rides and attractions themselves are just an incentive for something larger: the real estate around the park that Werner retains the rights to develop under his lease with the city.

"Just like Berlin is returning to the center of gravity of Europe over the decades, Baghdad has the potential to once again become the center of the Middle East," he says. "I'm not going to make a ton of money off skateboards. But the more stable Iraq is as an economy and a country, the greater the opportunity for the other things that we do to be profitable."

But the international press hasn't taken to Werner's plans as well as the Iraqis. After that April meeting, the Times of London pointed out that the company had hired Ride and Show Engineering, a company involved with Disneyland, to design the massive BZEE, and headlined its story on the project "Disneyland Comes to Baghdad." In a Fox News appearance, Ride and Show spokesman John March dismissed suggestions that BZEE could be a target for violence by noting that "in Southern California, there's drive-bys and everything else." A National Public Radio segment broadcast Werner explaining the activity to a room full of skeptical Iraqi officials: "It's called skate. Boarding."

"[A]n American corporation bringing American culture to Iraq's capital to generate profit for wealthy American investors — that's sure to win the hearts of the locals!" wrote Jim Hightower in his nationally syndicated column.

But Jeff Wilson says they got it all wrong. "In our conversations with Ride and Show, it was never to be a Disneyland," he complains. "There was a cultural center and amphitheaters and shops and landscaped parks. It was to be a celebration of the Iraqi culture that exists."

Joe Rice, a Colorado lawmaker and U.S. Army Reservist who's done three tours of duty in Iraq, where he served as an advisor to the Baghdad City Council and Iraqi security forces, was surprised to hear that someone wants to put skateparks in the city. "I definitely see the potential for it to catch on if it's being done with widespread local cooperation," he says. "And, of course, maintaining security in the streets and developing civic institutions that maintain rule of law is critical to its long-term success."

The Baghdad Zoo was once considered the finest in the Middle East, a destination enhanced by its location among the lagoons, gardens and monuments of al-Zawra Park, which is similar to New York City's Central Park in size and location. In the months after the U.S.-led invasion, the zoo was abandoned. Only 35 of the 700 animals survived, the grass died and the lagoons became clogged with debris. Still, thousands of Iraqis — Shiites and Sunnis — continue to flock to al-Zawra every weekend, viewing it as the closest thing to a safe zone for families. Several amusement-park rides, including an aging Ferris wheel and a swinging Viking ship — are still in operation. A recent video produced by the city's television station shows a lively park full of teens, grandparents and children picnicking; a swimming pool, opened by the Ministry of Youth and Sports in July, was a huge hit. And on September 10, the City of Baghdad announced that it planned to build the world's largest Ferris wheel here (see story, below).

Al-Zawra also has an old, outdoor roller-skating rink that Wilson targeted as the site of the first pocket skateboard park. He and Deulofeu worked with Globe, an Australian skateboard company, to purchase 200 skateboards, and they bought pads and helmets to go with each one. By late June, they had two of the skateboard parks and all the equipment loaded up on pallets at Freshpark's warehouse, ready for the military to pick up.

"But we couldn't get the Department of Defense to ship it," Wilson says. The problem? The military didn't consider skateparks to be humanitarian in nature. When another month of haggling didn't change things, Werner paid $30,000 to have the parks shipped by Federal Express.

The first park was finally installed on September 8. But since September also marks the Muslim holiday of Ramadan and daytime temperatures regularly reach into the 110s, no one has yet used the skatepark. So the official opening is planned for the second week of October. The mayor of Baghdad and Iraq's Minister of Youth and Sport are expected to be in attendance.

But will there be any youth?

Skateboarding may be a global activity, but the Middle East has traditionally been a blank spot for the sport. Soccer and cricket are much more popular in Iraq and neighboring countries.

Werner thinks all that will change, now that thousands of residents have purchased satellite dishes for their homes. "They're basically plugged into the 21st century in a really big way," he says. "And, young people being young people, they watch extreme sports and are tuned in to what it's all about."

The effects of globalization and the ever-widening reach of Western culture are most clearly demonstrated in the streets below the gleaming skyscrapers of Dubai, where 21-year-old Maysam Faraj spends his days at the helm of a small but growing skateboard scene in the United Arab Emirates. "We go skate in Jordan, Egypt, Saudi," he says. "There are skaters everywhere now." Though the Syrian-born Faraj has lived his whole life in the UAE, he speaks perfect English with the accent of an Orange County teenager. "I guess I watch a lot of TV," he explains.

But for Faraj, skateboarding isn't about being American. It's a cultural language that he and his friends use to speak across the harsh borders that have divided the Middle East through history. He was part of the 2007 documentary Sour, which captured the friendships between Arab and Israeli skateboarders. "Out here, skateboarding is such a non-hostile, non-threatening sport," he says. "We got kids from Syria who will totally go skate with kids in Tel Aviv, and they'll just see themselves as skaters. But if that kid goes home and tells his dad that he's friends with an Israeli, his dad might yell at him."

Faraj is so excited about spreading the sport in the region that he's working on a video titled Yallah Yakhi: Dubai to Baghdad.

"I have this epic shot in my head where I get everybody just bombing a hill," he says. "How awesome would that be if we just went to Baghdad all together?"

Awesome, and unlikely, according to Nathan Gray, the Oregon filmmaker behind Sour.  "I'm all for skating," he says, "but really, I can't see how an American-style megaplex with a skatepark is resources wisely spent. Is this something that the Iraqis would adamantly push for if they had more say within their own country?"

They would if they were all like Berci Basco, an Iraqi skateboarder who recently moved back to Baghdad with his family. "It is very inspiring to see that someone has such vision," he says of Werner's project. "The situation in Baghdad is just so sketchy, though, it seems a little premature, to be honest."

How old are you, young man?"

The young skateboarder looks up at Werner. "Ten."

"Ten years old," Werner says, surveying the Aspen skatepark. "Over half the people in Iraq are between the ages of ten and twenty. The whole Middle East, it's the same thing. They have nothing to do. They're going to be out there skating our parks. It's great."

Skateboarding is likely to be introduced as a demonstration sport at the 2012 Olympics in London; Werner says he's already been in contact with the International Olympic Committee to secure spots for Iraqi skaters to represent their country. He's investing in a former bicycle factory in Kirkut, where he plans to build skateboards. And he's even had conversations with General Douglas Stone about installing small skate ramps at several of the youth-detainment facilities that U.S. forces operate in Iraq, including Abu Ghraib. But Stone has since been transferred, and a spokesman for the command says he knows of no plans to put skateparks in U.S.-run jails in Iraq.

It's not easy pushing such projects from the stratosphere. "Not having someone on the ground there full-time pushing this is a real big obstacle," says Wilson. "Lew would go there, spend a week, two weeks, do twenty other things, and then he'd come back here for three weeks. When he was gone, nothing would happen; nobody cared about the project. They may have cared, but there's obviously plenty of other things to do over there."

Still, Werner is convinced the project will work — and not just in Iraq, but throughout the Middle East.

"We're building a skatepark in Syria, and that's considered part of the Axis of Evil by the U.S. State Department," he points out. "You see a kid riding around on a skateboard and you say, 'These are the people that are part of the Axis of Evil?' It sort of demystifies it." He considers skateboarding on par with the "Ping-Pong diplomacy" between China and the U.S. in the early '70s, when Ping-Pong players from both countries helped thaw the Cold War.

Werner muses about one day setting up a skateboard competition between Damascus and Tel Aviv. "Can you imagine that?" he says. "It's not unthinkable. There's a world of possibility."

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