Locals furious after businessman rents out entire city’s historic venues

A Japanese billionaire has sparked anger among some locals and officials after he rented out several key venues and cultural institutions in a major Italian city to celebrate his birthday during a three-day extravaganza.

73-year-old entrepreneur Kaoru Nakajima’s arrival in Palermo, Sicily’s capital, on Wednesday split locals into those who saw the birthday extravaganza attended by wealthy guests as an opportunity for the local economy and others who recoiled at the idea of cultural symbols being booked off by billionaires.

Among the venues he hired out for his 1,400 guests, Mr Nakajima chose the city’s most lavish hotels – the five-star Villa Igiea, on Palermo’s beachfront, and the nearby Grand Hotel et des Palmes.

Events for the birthday party, initially planned to mark the entrepreneur’s 70th birthday in 2020 but postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, are being staged at the 132-year-old Politeama Theatre – among other venues.

While this is normally home to the Sicilian symphonic orchestra, the musicians will have to perform elsewhere for the next few days, as the theatre has been customised to Mr Nakajima’s desire so that his guests can dance and dine.

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Another historic venue reportedly made temporarily off limits to locals by these birthday plans is the Teatro Massimo, the largest opera house in Italy.

Among those unhappy with the arrival to Palermo of Mr Nakajima – who on Thursday night kicked off his birthday party by attending a special performance of the Don Giovanni opera conducted by esteemed maestro Riccardo Muti – is the president of the Sicilian region, Renato Schifani.

The politician lamented having learnt of the billionaire’s plans from the media and argued similar large-scale plans should “go before a public order committee” prior to their approval.

Yet, he said: “Neither the prefect of Palermo nor the city’s head of police were informed ahead of this event taking place and they should have been with more than 1,000 people attending.”

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Mr Schifani also confessed to having security concerns given the large number of people flocking to the city and high-profile events planned, as he explained: “I just hope that all goes well but this is certainly a very serious situation and it must never happen again.”

Separately, speaking to the Italian ADN-Kronos news agency, the president of the region said: “I’m a liberal person who has always been open to the private sector but there’s a limit to everything.”

Renting out for private use a historic venue as Teatro Massimo, he continued, opens an “unprecedented window” which could lead to other individuals advancing similar requests.

Mr Schifani’s views were not shared by Palermo’s mayor, Roberto Lagalla, who noted local authorities have autonomy when it comes to making similar decisions regarding events and gatherings.

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He also branded “excessive” the worries about the security in Palermo over the next few days, as he said safety will be “fully guaranteed” by local forces.

The fact that Mr Nakajima chose Palermo as the location for his birthday bash, Mr Lagalla added, puts the city under the international spotlight which could benefit its image and local economy.

Much like Mr Schifani and Mr Lagalla, many Italians see Mr Nakajima’s birthday as either an opportunity or an unwelcomed intrusion.

Writing on the Facebook page of the Italian daily Repubblica, internet user Enza Carollo said: “These wealthy foreigners are welcome to our beautiful and badly hit city, too neglected by both its authorities and residents, often deprived of civil education and with behaviours revealing narrow-mindedness.”

On the Facebook page of local news outlet Palermo Today, Agostino Marino claimed: “Everyone writing, thank you for choosing Palermo but did the people who wrote this understand that it won’t bring prestige or anything else?

“He only showed off his power through his money because he is rich and can do it for the rest his presence is of no use and will not bring anything except money to other rich people who don’t care about the city. Palermo will always remain dirty, abandoned and disadvantaged, thanks for what exactly?”

Mr Nakajima isn’t the first billionaire to head to Sicily for a high-profile event. In recent years, the influential Google Camp attracting celebrities and wealthy entrepreneurs has been held on the Mediterranean island.

Mr Nakajima started making his fortune by rising through the ranks of the American multi-level marketing company AmWay, which sells household and beauty products.

Over the years, the entrepreneur also made a name for himself as an author of motivational books as well as a singer and composer, winning a prize at the Tokyo pop festival – equivalent to the Eurovision Song Contest.

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