Amid the tourist bustle of central Prague this week a tour with a difference was taking place. Czechs turned up in their droves when development company Flow East opened the doors to some of its historic buildings. But the developer’s first initiative of its kind is linked to its ongoing battle with Prague planners and politicians.
The tour included the interiors of some of the architectural jewels Flow East now owns in the centre of Prague. Demand to be on the tour was so great that many who turned up for the event had to be turned away and asked to come back again on another date.
Historic frescos, painted ceilings, restored facades, ancient cellars, the participants were given the full treatment over around 90 minutes. Exhausted and grasping the explanatory material, those who stayed the course were invited to finish up at the Hotel Jalta on Prague’s famous Wenceslas Square for a refreshing goodbye drink.
The aim of the operation was pretty clear: to put Flow East in a good light as it struggles to get final planning permission for a controversial project a few doors down from the Hotel Jalta. Flow East has put forward plans for a modern office and retail complex at what it describes as a nondescript late 19th century building standing on the square. The plans are now held up at Prague City Hall and the company’s hands tied after Prague City Council mayor Tomáš Hudeček made a last minute intervention to block the project from going ahead.
At the drinks session, I asked Flow East’s chairman, James Woolf, why the tour had been staged.
“We recognised many years ago that we have some beautiful buildings and I made a brochure which I call the beautiful buildings brochure. And then a few years later when we were getting the planning permission for Wenceslas Square 47, it turned out that those beautiful buildings were listed buildings. And we are just proud of our buildings and what we have done to maintain them and look after them and we wanted to share that with Prague and let them understand what sort of company we are and what sort of investors we are and that we really like to buy buildings, look after them, and that we are actually keeping them for the very, very, long term. We hardly ever sell anything.”
Will this be the first of many guided tours then?
“I think it will be because we were expecting far fewer people than registered. I think we had a thousand people register and we could only accommodate properly around 150. So we are definitely going to have more open days but it is difficult to arrange with the tenants. But, as I say, we are so proud of some of the frescos we have in Malé Naměsti, where we took down the ceilings and discovered the beams that had been hidden in the Communist days with sardrocarton. And in the Jalta Hotel, here, there was a problem with the façade and we had to take off all the stone and repair the metal behind the stone and then put it all back, like a jig-saw numbering every piece so that it went back in the right place. So, we’re proud of what we have done and want to share it with everybody.”
Some people, sceptical people, might say this is partly PR as well because of the controversy you have been involved in in the recent past over one of the buildings you bought on Wenceslas Square. How do you react to that? Do you think you have been given unfair treatment and this is an attempt to rebalance that?
“Quite frankly, I think that there is a lot of irresponsible press written about us and that building and it is fanatical There are so few people who are against it, it is just funny. When we had our open day for that building, which you have to have by law, there was just one person…one who came along. Nobody is actually against that building. There are some fanatics, who unfortunately get airtime. And it’s a great shame for the Czech Republic because this is exactly what politicians latch onto and it slows down growth and the whole economy that people take heed of a small, small, minority that they really should not do. And what we are trying to show is the majority and business and how things happen normally and that the people who are criticising us have actually no equity in the game. The people who are criticising us have no buildings; they have restored no buildings; they have restored no frescos, no roofs, no walls, no nothing. They are mostly filing clerks and people who are desperately trying to get government jobs. And I find it very sad that the press gives them airtime, they really shouldn’t.”
And what is the latest situation on the building in Wenceslas Square?
“We are in the appeal process and, unfortunately, there are some appeals that are quite wrong and it has become a political tool to do with the elections which are coming up [in October], which I think is a great shame and is wrong. I think that the state bodies should carry on and do their job. We have 60 permits for that building and it is actually costing the country money if the building does not happen. I sort of care, but at the end of the day it is everybody here, every Czech person who should care whether it is built.
“There will be more investment, there will be 2 billion crowns spent. We will have a thousand people working in that building when it is finished. The VAT receipts will be enormous from the shops. There will be offices downtown that will provide restaurants and hair dressing services and other services around. And that boosts the economy and boosts peoples’ wages. And if you see, as I do, around the country that peoples’ wages in the last five years have gone nowhere, probably down rather than up. And it’s all because of this clamp on investment by politicians. And we are not the only people saying this, we are the only people speaking out. But if you speak to almost any developer, almost all of them have a problem like us, a problem that is last six, seven, eight, or longer, years. And this causes people to change their investment decisions. We are now looking at investing in other countries whereas before we never did. Jonathan Jackson is investing in Kenya rather than investing in the Czech Republic. Four developers have left the Czech Republic this year alone. Now, you may say ‘great, no developers’, but every single building that exists was built by a developer. So, if you don’t want any developers, live in wigwams.”
Many of those on the tour only appeared vaguely aware of the controversy surrounding the Wenceslas Square 47 project or were totally in the dark about it.
For one tour participant the PR message behind the initiative was far too clear: “For me, this public relations was much too obvious and easy to read. I understand PR which is aimed at increasing awareness of a company it is one of the normal tools and can be used properly, but the goal here appeared to me all too obvious. I will take some interest in this company now. I have some information from their web pages and I’ll have a look at it for the first time. I will draw on these resources and then try to form some opinion.”
Meanwhile, Flow East’s Mr. Woolf will be hoping that Prague city elections will provide the impetus for his project to push ahead.