PALAU, Italy — The huge, futuristic resort sits nestled in La Maddalena National Park, one of the most ravishingly beautiful corners of the Mediterranean, where topaz-tinted waves wash the juniper-studded granite of a scattering of tiny islands off Sardinia’s northeast coast. The resort’s cost: 470 million euros, or about $506 million. Handover from the developer to the Italian government: 2009. Intended purpose: hosting the Group of 8 summit meeting of leading industrial nations.
Actual use: None. Nearly six years on, the fully fitted glass-and-metal buildings are rusting quietly in the mistral, a cold, gusting wind that come down from France.
Not that those responsible feel any need to offer any explanation. There is a conviction, in Italy as elsewhere, that major events leave a heritage of waste and cathedrals in the desert.
That was what happened after the 2004 Athens Olympics, where sky-high costs helped to sink Greece’s public finances. Up to a point, the same scene unfolded in the wake of the 2010 soccer World Cup in South Africa. It’s happening after the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, a mirror held up to Vladimir V. Putin’s dreams of grandeur.
The Maddalena fiasco isn’t as spectacular, or as expensive, as any of these, but it is more bizarre. Olympic games actually took place in Athens and Sochi. South Africa saw genuine soccer matches. But the Maddalena archipelago — where Napoleon suffered his first defeat and Giuseppe Garibaldi lived for a time, a father of modern Italy an exile in his homeland — is haunted only by the shadows of a summit meeting that never took place: At the last minute, Italy shifted it to the mainland.
Sardinia, the Mediterranean’s second-largest island, suffers a youth unemployment rate of more than 50 percent. It is economically and geographically isolated, and its petrochemical and metallurgical industries, the twin engines of the local economy, have been shutting down. Sardinia could have done much with the frittered millions. According to the island government’s 2015 spending, €470 million would have covered its education, employment, tourism, arts and sports budgets.
The Maddalena fiasco began in the early 2000s, when the American military began sending signals it would close its base on Santo Stefano, a part of the Maddalena archipelago. The base was opened after a 1972 agreement between Italy and the United States. When it finally shuttered, in 2008, the NATO munitions facility there vanished, and with it an American nuclear submarine facility. In an area with few sources of income except summer vacationers, the American armed forces were a lifeline.
Facing the looming closure, in 2006 Prime Minister Romano Prodi’s government found a spectacular solution to La Maddalena’s ills: holding the Group of 8 meeting on the site of the former naval base.
By 2008, however, Silvio Berlusconi was in power and blowing distinctly cool on the project. Work went ahead anyway. What took shape was a luxury resort that, at least in theory, would give post-Group of 8 tourism in Sardinia a shot in the arm.
That was over five years ago. Aside from the summit meeting, nothing much has happened in L’Aquila. Today, most of its historic center is still unsafe. Meanwhile, La Maddalena’s glass and steel citadel gazes out to sea unused. Both sites have been devastated by neglect, poor planning, corruption and courtroom squabbles. But the scene at La Maddalena is more depressing.
Taking cover behind the excuse of urgency, the government allowed costs to balloon. Mita Resort, the structure’s management company, complains that the sea has not been cleaned up and La Maddalena is not attracting wealthy tourists. Neither is it clear who has overall responsibility for the complex. The regional authority has no money, the national government has no time, and private investors have no ideas.
Italy is now set to host Expo 2015, which opens May 1 in Milan. The theme is feeding the planet. Some 6,000 workers are toiling round the clock to get things finished. The construction involved more than 8.8 million cubic feet of concrete, more than 2.8 million cubic feet of timber and 77,000 tons of steel. Authorities expect 20 million visitors.
The expo’s millions of square feet will host pavilions displaying exhibitions from 145 countries. It is a magnificent project that Italy will surely carry through. But let’s not forget La Maddalena. Fiascos contain lessons, if you look for them.
~Beppe Severgnini is a columnist at Corriere della Sera and the author of “La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind.”