THE current Vallada Mayor, María José Tortosa, shields her eyes as she points towards the horizon. “The park was going to be all that and more, 1,300sq/km,” she says.
“The first stone was laid more than 10 years ago, and you can see how it has turned out.”
Too true! Tortosa stands on the edge of a piece of tarmac, where the vast expanse of wasteland begins. There is a huge, weather-beaten sign that says “Valpark”, and a strong fragrance in the air from the ubiquitous broom shrubs.
Welcome to Vallada, a Valencia municipality with a population of 3,030… and the biggest debt per capita in Spain: somewhere between €25.5m and €37m, with each resident owing from €8,444 to €12,239.
The debt stands at around 1,000% of the Council’s income, which means the authorities have been forced to introduce austerity measures: two out of three street lights are turned off, and budgeting for the village’s fiestas has been reduced to a minimum.
The land was meant to be converted into a vast nautical park, under the vision of Popular Party (PP) Mayor Fernando Giner, even though Vallada is 70km from the coast.
Giner planned the project when it was announced that the America’s Cup sailing regatta would take place in Valencia. Determined to take advantage of the news, Giner came up with “La mar de dins” (or the inland sea), a project comprising a shipyard with a dry dock, and a sailing school, as well as an extensive service area with a 10-story hotel.
“At the time, it was an opportunity,” says Giner, a teacher who was Mayor of Vallada for Unión Valenciana and, later, the PP for 24 years, as well as President of Valencia’s provincial authority for two terms.
The glamorous sailing championship came and went, however, without so much as a nod to Giner’s venture or to the thousands of square kilometres acquired by Vallada Town Hall.
Giner then came up with Plan B: a logistics park called Valpark. But, says Giner, now retired: “It was thwarted, as so many projects were. What I regret is that the crisis happened.” The Valencia regional government and the local PP and Socialist Party (PSOE) candidates, the only parties running at the local elections on Sunday (26th May), paradoxically, believe the park is the main chance the village has of emerging from its saddling debt.
“Investors have been approaching us,” says Tortosa, who supplements her job as mayor, for which she doesn’t earn a salary, by working as a nurse.
“Right now, there’s one investor interested in buying 200,000 square metres, but on condition that the company can be located here by 2021.
“And that’s the catch. We can’t sell it to them because we don’t have the money to develop the land. If we did, companies would come.”
The Valencian regional government, looking into the possibility of buying Valpark, or, at least, helping Vallada to make money out of it, is currently weighing the cost of finishing the project, which would be at least €10m.
“We want the Valencia region to be a reference point for distribution companies, and that means the chance to invest in large areas of land,” says María José Mira, of the regional finance department.
“Vallada is well located, with a highway and a rail-line close by. But the park’s design was poorly managed; there was a lack of budgetary control and, it appears, other more serious issues.”
An audit of Valpark revealed that money was spent on work that was never carried out, and services were paid for twice. But the company involved in the scandal has, at least, agreed to return €4.2m to Vallada to avoid being prosecuted. Meanwhile, the Audit Court is demanding €1.4m from Giner, his successor Vicente Perales (from the party Independent Alternatives for Vallada), and former municipal secretary Ricardo Martínez.
None of the 10 locals in Vallada, asked about the PP’s chances of returning to power in the upcoming local elections, believe he or she has a shot.
“Everyone is very angry with them,” says Rafael Guzmán, a retired farm worker and truck driver. “They should not have got the town into debt for land that is completely worthless.”
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