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360 Architecture sees an opportunity in Iraq
Published February 2, 2009
360 Architecture could play a crucial role in rebuilding the sports infrastructure of war-torn Iraq.
The Kansas City-based firm is on the short list of seven development teams competing to design and build a multiple-venue sports complex within the oil-rich port city of Basra, the second-largest city in the country. Iraq has committed to playing host to the Gulf Cup, an Olympic-style event, there in 2013.
The project’s first phase, estimated to cost $500 million, includes a stadium with 60,000 to 65,000 seats, a smaller 10,000- to 20,000-seat outdoor facility, four soccer practice fields with 5,000 seats each, and 10,000 parking spaces. A second phase, with midsize arenas for basketball, volleyball and gymnastics, and mixed-use components including athlete housing, restaurants and retail, could push the price tag to $1 billion.
“It’s a mini-Olympic village,” said 360 team member Rounsevelle “Skip” Schaum, a mechanical engineer, MIT professor and U.S. Department of Defense consultant with extensive experience in the Middle East.
Schaum’s firm, Newport Global Project Management, formed a joint venture with 360 and Abdullah Al-Jiburi Contracting Co., Iraq’s largest general contractor.
The Iraqi government should make a decision soon after Feb. 17, when the seven teams, including firms from Britain, China, France, Kuwait, Russia and Turkey, submit their final bids.
For 360 it’s a risky but lucrative opportunity, said principal George Heinlein, in a country that has been in turmoil for much of the time since the 2003 U.S. invasion. The firm is seeking new work during the recession after projects have stalled, especially in the U.S., because of the inability to finance arena and stadium construction.
The Middle East is one area the firm is turning to for new business, despite the drop in oil prices that has slowed sports work in some parts, such as in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Several soccer stadium projects are in the pipeline in Saudi Arabia, said Ellerbe Becket and HOK Sport officials working in the region.
Iraq’s oil revenue has taken a significant hit from decreased demand, but the country has more than enough financial resources to fund the Basra complex and soccer stadiums in seven to eight other Iraqi cities in need of 15,000- to 20,000-seat facilities, Schaum said.
Still, the idea of working in a nation still at war does not appeal to some architects. Basra had been under British military control, but the city has been turned over to local authorities as British troops withdraw.
HOK, with offices in London and Brisbane, Australia, has a strong international presence but declined to pursue the Basra deal after talking to Schaum. HNTB also passed, Schaum said. “We have to determine risk [and] it was a business decision,” said Tom Tingle, HNTB’s sports practice leader.
“From our perspective, Iraq is not on our map just yet,” said John Barrow, HOK’s London-based senior principal and designer of an auto racing facility in Dubai. “We can’t send our employees into a risky country with the war going on.”
Schaum then turned to 360. Heinlein gave the thumbs-up after Schaum and Al-Jiburi assured him that he would spend most of his time working in the safe haven of Amman, Jordan, where Al-Jiburi has an office.
“I was a little apprehensive at first, but after talking to Skip and Al-Jiburi, they assured me that things are improving in Iraq,” Heinlein said. “I have been over there twice in Amman, and did go to Baghdad. It was uneventful, thankfully, but quite an experience.”
Safety is not the only risk involved in doing work in the Middle East; getting paid is also a big concern for U.S. firms, said Randy Edwards, who helped Ellerbe Becket establish its Middle East practice and later returned to the firm as its Dubai-based managing director of Europe, Asia and the Middle East in November.
“When you negotiate a deal, you better get the cash up front because they expect a lot of free work,” Edwards said. “You can’t afford to wait 90 days for the amount of effort you put into a project. Every [nation] is different, but that is the biggest risk you have to manage.”
For architects such as 360 just starting to ramp up in the Middle East, the challenge also includes the “extreme costs” involved to shift personnel back and forth from the U.S., Edwards said.
The contract terms in Basra state that the Ministry of Youth and Sport must pay 20 percent of the fees up front to the development team awarded the project, which “gets the cash flowing,” Heinlein said. If awarded the job, “we won’t start work until we get the 20 percent.”
One sports industry executive who has spent time in Iraq was encouraged that a Western architect is competing for work there.
David Mingey, director of Olympic marketing for Johnson & Johnson, served in marketing and communications at Nike before taking a leave of absence in 2004 to spend three months volunteering in Iraq, where he helped the newly formed Ministry of Youth and Sport get off the ground.
Most sports facilities in Iraq were damaged in the war and some, such as 45,000-seat Al-Shaab Stadium in Baghdad, became unusable, said Mingey, who was fired upon during his brief stay there and has a photograph of his office window blown out by a mortar to prove it.
“I’m thrilled to hear that those facilities may be built; it’s a sign of progress,” he said. “Of the very few things that unite the people in Iraq, one is sport, whether you are a Shiite, Sunni, Kurd or Christian.”