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Delays fears haunt Milan Expo 2015

The next big factor, after the delays, affecting this upcoming Expo is that, unlike the previous edition in Shanghai and the next one in Dubai, the 2015 exhibition will take place in a country that has been in recession since 2011.

The last time Expo was in Milan, in 1906, among the main attractions was Buffalo Bill, the hero of the American Old West, with his circus.

That year the universal exposition was dedicated to the theme of transportation to celebrate the inauguration of the Paris-Milan railway. A month before the opening, in March 1906, a leading Italian daily, La Stampa, warned that the “delays in the building works are threatening to put off the inauguration”.

Since then more than a century has passed, man has walked on the moon, two world wars have shocked humanity but the main risk to the Expo that will be held next year in Italy’s fashion and business capital is still the same – delays.

When in 2008 Milan won this second chance to host the exhibition, defeating the competition from Turkish town Smirne – also known as Izmir, it was thanks to a bipartisan effort, a unique event in such a divided and Byzantine country.

Milan’s mayor at the time was Letizia Moratti, a centre-right politician, but the success was a result of a full collaboration with the centre-left government of the day led by Romano Prodi, the former president of the European Commission. When it prevailed many commentators stressed that the first lesson the country should have learnt from that achievement was that, to move on, it needed to set aside political differences and focus on common goals. A policy beset with political obstacles for any democracy, worsening economic scenario in Italy at the time made its implementation all the more urgent.

In 2008 the slowdown that has been afflicting Italy for the last seven years, and to a lesser extent the rest of Europe, was just beginning. So the next big factor, after the delays, affecting this upcoming Expo is that, unlike the previous edition in Shanghai and the next one in Dubai, the 2015 exhibition will take place in a country that has been in recession since 2011. Since 2007 Italy has seen an 11.6 per cent fall in its GDP (the EU average is a drop of 2.5 per cent).

The current crisis lasting longer than the 1929 Great Depression, and in the last seven years Italy has lost a quarter of its industrial production.

In such a dire situation Milan’s Expo, with its 20 million expected visitors, is seen as a light of hope, “a giant restarting point for the country” in the words of Giuseppe Sala, the Expo commissioner who will be responsible for the success, or the failure, of the initiative. Because if things do go wrong, the effect could be devastating.

With less than 200 days to the opening of the exhibition, the delays in constructions are worrying, with about a third of the works are still not there. Twenty-seven out of 34 works contracted out are behind schedule for the May 1 opening, according to data published by OpenExpo – an official Expo platform dedicated to transparency. About 5 countries out of the 53 that will build their own pavilions have not yet started construction work.

There have even been unconfirmed rumours that the Italian government has been thinking of asking for a postponement of the opening using the excuse of the risk of Ebola due to the presence of many African countries. Although the majority of them have not even been touched by the virus, putting it off could be a good way to avoid a public embarrassment over the delays.

These delays have been caused mainly by years of infighting among local governments but also by the arrests of some managers for corruption. It is not a surprise then that this is an anxious time for Milan. Yet, it’s too early to jump to any conclusion. “We have to rush a little bit but we’ll make it”, says Alessandro Molaioni, Expo construction project manager.

This time the theme of the Milan Expo is “feeding the planet, energy for life”. The city hopes to use the event to brand itself as an agriculture and food capital.

But what real upsides will the Expo bring? Are local companies benefiting from it? Have house prices increased since Milan won its bid, as has been seen in Dubai? Which are the main pitfalls to avoid in terms of organisation and communication? What will happen to the structures that have been built once Expo is over? How will the city avoid the risk of empty hotels because prices have gone up too much, as happened in some instances in the London Olympic Games? Is Alitalia, the main Italian carrier, in which Etihad has made an investment, in the right condition to exploit this opportunity? Is this city of one and half million habitants ready to host the expected 20 million tourists?

We will answer these questions in the next columns. And the hope is that the answers will be positive – otherwise it will take much more than a popular hero such as Buffalo Bill to fix Milan’s problems.

Jacopo Barigazzi is a former Newsweek contributor and Reuters journalist. Based in Milan, he will be writing a monthly column reporting on the build-up to Expo 2015.

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Updated: November 8, 2014 04:00 AM

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