Italian Island Has Spent Millions on Fruitless Projects in Sciacca, as Brussels Moves to Reduce ‘Dysfunction’ and Excess
SCIACCA, Sicily—The purchase of two killer whales in the 1980s to jump-start a tourist industry in this corner of western Sicily was a flop. The aquatic park that would have housed them was never built, despite a decade of planning. At one point, taxpayers footed the bill to keep the animals lodged for a year in an Icelandic zoo.
Today, Sicily’s regional government is still struggling to lure visitors to this sunny fishing town with a different public project: A grandiose theater about four decades and $18 million in the making.
By now, the theater’s architect and his son have died. But this year, Sicilian politicians pledged millions more in public funds to carry the 1,000-seat theater to completion.
The Alicudi Hotel is one of the Sciacca Mare hotels built in a site which was initially expected to host an aquatic theme park with two killer whales.
The 40,000-person town of Sciacca has become a mausoleum of decades-old unfinished public works. Rainwater and weeds fill the basins of two indoor Olympic-scale swimming pools that have never opened.
The cement carcass of a retirement home, overlooking Sciacca’s port, remains bereft of tenants, or electricity, decades after its construction.
“Our model for economic growth is not one based on balanced budgets,” said longtime Sciacca resident Calogero Mannino, 73 years old, one of the town’s principal rainmakers.
Sicily’s spending on Sciacca, which has made it a small tourism hub, opens a window onto one of the biggest problems facing Italy’s struggling national finances.
In the local governments of Italy’s 20 regions, including their provinces and cities, decades of wasteful spending—sometimes corrupt, sometimes negligent and nearly always without oversight—has helped Italy’s sovereign debt to balloon, leaving the country facing years of austerity.
As the Europe Union tries to rein in profligate countries, attention has turned to how regions within euro-zone member states are spending their money. In Spain, Catalonia, Valencia and other regions have requested billions in emergency aid from Madrid to meet their financial commitments.
“Dysfunction of regional government is a problem for growth across Europe,” said Joaquim Oliveira Martins, head of regional development at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Regional spending in Italy accounted for 14% of Italy’s gross domestic product in 2010, the latest year for which data are available. More than half of those funds originated in Rome.
The unfinished Our Lady of Loreto church (also called “San Sebastiano church).
This summer, Sicily caused international alarm when the region nearly ran out of cash to cover payrolls. Sicily’s governor resigned under pressure from Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti, who temporarily froze funding to the region and set up an emergency commission to review Sicily’s finances.
Since then, a spate of financial scandals has beset Italy’s regions from the affluent north to the poor south. In the Lazio region, which includes Rome, prosecutors are investigating whether lawmakers used party funds to buy luxury cars and seaside vacations.
In Milan, prosecutors are investigating a city housing official for allegedly buying votes from organized-crime figures.
Mr. Monti is trying to halt regional excess. This year, his government dramatically reduced the amount of funding it will send to regions over the next two years. Mr. Monti is now going further, pushing to halve the amount of money regional political parties receive from Rome.
Sicily is one of the most vulnerable regions. One out of five people is out of work and organized crime looms large. Because there is sparse private-sector investments, many residents rely on the public sector for their livelihood.
The island-region, home to about five million people, employs 17,000 staffers full time, more than any other Italian region, and tens of thousands more work on a part-time basis.
The town’s transformation from a sleepy fishing village to a reservoir for public spending began in the early 1970s when Mr. Mannino became head of Sicily’s public finances.
Under Mr. Mannino, the region poured public money into an ambitious plan to build 11 hotels and the aquatic theme park along Sciacca’s olive-tree-lined coast.
Mr. Mannino tapped Italian architect Giuseppe Samoná to design a theater large enough to rival opera houses in Rome and Paris. The theater’s cone-like concrete shell soared above the town’s skyline, but its interior was left unfinished and languished for decades.
By 1976, Mr. Mannino had moved onto national politics, winning a seat in the lower house of Italy’s Parliament, as construction of the hotels was just getting under way. In the decades that followed, the project got bogged down in red tape, cost overruns, and failed supporting projects, ranging from the commissioning of an aqueduct that was never built, to the training of staffers who were never put to work.
By 1987, the regional government had spent 200 billion lira ($154 million at rates then) developing the resorts, according to La Zavorra, a published independent 2010 report on Sicily’s spending habits, including the park project.
Prosecutors charged the project’s developers with fraud. The trial ended with an acquittal in 2003.
In the end, only four of the 11 hotels were built. Antonio Mangia, a private tour operator who acquired those hotels in the 1990s, recalled inheriting a managerial staff larded with political appointees.
“On Day 1, I called a staff meeting and announced that anyone who got hired because of political connections was now out of job,” Mr. Mangia said.
Mr. Mannino’s quest to enhance Sciacca place on the tourist map isn’t over. In recent months, the lawmaker said he has helped lined up an additional up to €3.5 million ($4.6 million) in new public funding to complete the theater.
Many townspeople have lost hope that the theater will ever be completed, while some consider it an eyesore not worth finishing. Werner Herzog, the German filmmaker and opera director, has recommended blowing it up.
“The people never loved it. Maybe it can be used as a bomb shelter one day,” said Massimo D’Antoni, a town news anchor.
Mr. Mannino, sipping espresso on a recent sunny morning, shrugs off the criticism, saying his spending initiatives have helped to build a hospital and restore centuries-old palazzos. “I’m doing a beautiful thing for my town,” he said.
Write to Stacy Meichtry at email@example.com
A version of this article appeared October 23, 2012, on page A11 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Sicilian Town’s Woes Show European Waste.