SEOUL -- A troubled project to build a Lego-themed amusement park near the world's last Cold War frontier received the green light from a local assembly controlled by ruling party legislators who overpowered the dissenting opinion of opponents concerned about the potential waste of taxpayers' money.
The project, pushed by Gangwon Province Governor Choi Moon-soon, was supported by 33 local assemblymen in a vote on Friday. Out of 44 members, 11 opposed it. Choi has hailed a decision by Merlin Entertainments, the British operator of Legoland, to make a direct investment as "most desirable."
For the successful operation of the theme park on a lake island in the eastern city of Chuncheon, about 30 kilometers (18 miles) away from the southern perimeter of the border with North Korea, the governor promised to capitalize on an inter-Korean detente, backed by ruling party legislators who said the resort would boost regional economic growth and tourism.
The project dates back to 2011 when Merlin teamed up with LL Development, a special-purpose corporation for Legoland Korea, to build the theme park. Legoland, a chain of family theme parks, opened the first park in Denmark in 1968, followed by more parks in Japan and other countries. The parks are known for a model village which includes models of global landmarks and scenes made from Lego bricks.
In a place spanning 1.3 million square meters, a hotel, a water park, shopping malls and Lego attractions were to be built, but construction was suspended after prehistoric ruins were discovered and Merlin threatened to withdraw, citing delays and high military tensions on the Korean peninsula. Chuncheon is the capital city of the province, which shares the border with North Korea
In May this year, the British company signed a fresh deal with Gangwon Province, which hosted the Winter Olympics in February in the eastern ski resort of Pyeongchang. The Olympics galvanized an inter-Korean thaw.
Merlin promised to invest and manage construction by 2020. Some 300 billion won ($266 million) would be invested, but provincial government officials envisaged a broad roadmap to turn the area into one of South Korea's leading tourist destinations.
"Its business success is uncertain," Kim Jin-tae, a lawmaker of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party, told reporters, calling for measures to improve the project's cost structure and a separate deal with Merlin to return development profits to the local community.
Merlin may get a great profit due to an unfair contract, Kim said, adding the project would start with a deficit of 120 billion won in state money. He warned that the Lego-themed park could become the second Alpensia, the main sports complex developed for the Pyeongchang Olympics.
Nearly $14 billion was spent on the Olympics, but it's not easy for South Korea to recover its Olympic investment. Olympic hangover stories are common among previous host cities. Montreal took 30 years to pay off the debt of hosting the 1976 Olympics.
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