The Time Has Come: Valletta Takes Centre Stage

Sarah Micallef - 27th December 2017

As the stage is set for Valletta’s turn on the European stage as Capital of Culture 2018, a number of key protagonists discuss the significance of this major milestone.

Minister for Justice, Culture and Local Government Owen Bonnici considers it an honour to be in his position during the time Valletta will hold the prestigious title of European Capital of Culture, and believes that while Malta’s couple has long been popular among tourists and the general public, its new status will ensure that Valetta continues to be an attraction not just for its uniqueness, rich history and imposing architecture, but also as a cultural venue, placing the Maltese islands on an international platform. “This title has enriched our islands, in particular Valletta, both culturally and economically. I will not hesitate to say that during 2018, we will be the envy of most,” he says.

Valletta 2018 Chairman Jason Micallef also believes Valletta's title as European Capital of Culture (ECoC) marks an important milestone in Malta's social and cultural development, providing the country with a unique opportunity to mobilise its resources and direct them towards placing culture at the forefront of national discourse. “In this way, the true significance of Valletta 2018 will be represented by its legacy and its ability to act as a catalyst for the further strengthening of Malta’s cultural sector and the cultural participation of its citizens,” he maintains.

“Valletta 2018 is a lifetime opportunity of regeneration through culture,” adds Valletta’s Mayor, Prof. Alexiei Dingli, affirming that it is only in the past decade that Valletta has experienced real investment. “We estimate that the money spent on the city in these past 10 years is more than what has been spent in the previous decades put together. Furthermore, the injection towards culture is unprecedented. Because of this, I consider the title highly significant for Valletta.”

Indeed, Malta Chamber President Frank V. Farrugia refers to Valletta’s ECoC title as “a year-long showcase of what the city, and by extension, the rest of Malta has to offer to the rest of Europe in a variety of areas,” maintaining that it is an opportunity for the city to put its best foot forward. “The title is an opportunity and it all depends on us on how far we are willing to take it. Forming part of the Board of Governors of the Valletta 2018 Foundation on behalf of the Malta Chamber, I can assure everyone that the Foundation has worked tirelessly for the past seven years and the programme we have produced does not leave one undiscovered aspect of Malta’s milieu of realities,” he says.

Maintaining that Valletta should be proud to participate in the tradition created around the yearly nomination of Capitals of Culture, Konrad Buhagiar, architect and founder of Architecture Project explains that in many cases the event not only sees the injection of funds into the economy of these towns, international exposure and a renewal of the cultural resources of the community, but also witnesses the evolution of the identity of that town. “The Capital of Culture is envisioned as an operation whose legacy will continue to sustain the economy of the city and catalyse the evolution of its identity as a centre for creativity and innovation. With this in mind, Valletta's nomination as European Capital of Culture is probably the most significant event in its history since a large percentage of its inhabitants abandoned it during WWII,” he says.

Certainly, on a commercial level, Valletta has been given a new lease of life in recent years, through entertainment establishments, restaurants, wine bars and a host of boutique accommodation – and the question on many lips now is, can the momentum be sustained? Culture Minister Owen Bonnici believes that it can, with the proper vision and management.

“Capital cities are the pulsing heart of any given country, and that is how our own capital city should be. Up until a few years back, Valletta was practically a dead city. As soon as the business community closed shop and office workers ‘called it a day’, the capital became deserted,” he explains, adding that recent years have brought about an enthusiastic interest in Valletta, with new establishments boutique hotels, restaurants and wine bars set up. “These are all giving a new life to our capital. I live in Valletta, and am pleased that this interest is not only generating commerce but is also injecting a new life into the city.”

Valletta 2018’s Jason Micallef maintains that a central focus of Valletta 2018 is ensuring that the changes taking place within Valletta are sustainable and in respect of the wellbeing of the residents and visitors to the city. “The developments mentioned, such as cultural spaces, boutique hotels and restaurants, help ensure the livelihood of the city through the presence of cultural, creative and social activity, however these must be balanced with the needs of the local community and respect the city’s heritage and character. For this reason, Valletta 2018 is leading a number of community-oriented projects which seek to further bring to light the role of the local community in shaping its own urban and social spaces,” he says.

Mayor Prof. Alexiei Dingli also believes the momentum can be sustained, but cautions a word of warning: “we have to ensure that we do not go overboard.” Whilst having a mixed usage district is important for the survival of any city, he insists that one type of usage must not overshadow the other. “A bar should not provide entertainment at the expense of the resident, who cannot get some rest. We need balance. That is why the re-establishment of the rule of law is important, because these need to co-exist without disturbing each other if we want a living city,” he attests.

On behalf of the Malta Chamber, President Frank V. Farrugia augur that investment in Valletta is made with its long-term sustainability in mind. “Within this context it is very important that Government continue to invest in the capital as it has done in the run-up to the prestigious title next year. We must continue to see innovative projects take place, as well as the organisation of events that attract foot-fall to the streets of the city,” he attests, referring to a Valletta’s dilemma in the past as akin to a chicken and egg scenario. “Businesses had a modest appetite for investment for Valletta, as it lacked the foot-fall and public sector investment. The public, on the other hand, had nothing to actually to draw it to the city beyond the fashion retail sector. Now that this impasse appears to have been broken, it is important that we keep this wheel going and this will take the concerted effort of all,” Mr Farrugia says.

On the issue of property prices, Mr Farrugia argues that one must look at the value of property in Valletta within the perspective of property value in other European city centres such as London, Rome or Paris. “I see owning property in the capital city of a country as nothing short of a privilege, and Valletta is not an exception,” the Chamber President maintains – an argument that Mr Buhagiar supports. “Like every other city in the world, the commercial value of property is subject to the whims of supply and demand, a fundamental rule in the contemporary economic structure that it will not escape. However, like every other property in the centre of European capitals, its value is also inherent and will remain buoyant due to the historical nature of the place, the vicinity of cultural institutions, as well as governmental offices, the service provided by the number of restaurants and bars nearby, etc. So in the long term, it is my opinion that any investment is a good one,” the architect says.

Finally, while we have seen radical changes in social patterns surrounding Valletta, during the day it is still essentially dominated by office workers, court, civil service and ministries workers – long term, will we see a further shift from office to hospitality, retail and entertaining usage?

According to the Culture Minister, being the major hub in Malta, the seat of Government and its Ministries and housing offices for major companies as well as commercial outlets, a major change in this is not expected, at least for the near future. The Valletta 2018 Chairman argues that, as is the case with many capital cities around the world, Valletta is also shaped not only by its residential, social and cultural functions, but also by its administrative function, where it is the seat of the highest institutions in the country. “I believe that the Valletta will continue to serve all these functions over the coming years,” he maintains.

The full version of this article appeared in the December edition of the Commercial Courier

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The Time Has Come: Valletta Takes Centre Stage