Buying Villas in Sicily

An earthquake devastated the Sicilian village of Salemi in 1968, killing 200 people and reducing thousands of buildings to rubble. Down the hill, a faceless modern city sprung up in the village's place, but the historical center has been a ghost town ever since. Except for a few dozen habitable villas, the ruins are frozen in time: tattered curtains hang on broken windows and rusty table legs protrude from heaps of rubble.

Now Salemi is taking an unusual step to reincarnate the old town: it is giving the dilapidated villas away. The city's new celebrity mayor, Vittorio Sgarbi, a former national deputy culture minister and an avid art critic and colorful television personality, is offering 3,000 of the villas for the bargain-basement price of €1 (about U.S.$1.41 at current exchange rates) a piece. The catch? The new owners have two years to renovate, staying true to each building's original characteristics and, when possible, using the area's local artisans, masons and builders.

The idea, conceived with the help of advertising guru Oliviero Toscani, is to attract foreign investors interested in a remote Sicilian escape for vacations or businesses. (Italians have already passed on previous similar offers.) The authorities hope the plan will turn Salemi into a boomtown, employing hundreds of out-of-work locals in construction and renovation projects. "These houses are like a heart pierced by a thorn," says Toscani, who is best known for his controversial advertisement photography using human hearts and anorexic fashion models. "They are dangerous, but they also represent a patrimony that is slowly dissolving away."

So far, agents involved in the sale say there's been plenty of interest. David Moss, who runs MIPC, a bilingual Italian property consultancy with offices in London and Italy, is working with Sgarbi and the Salemi city council to help non-Italian speakers work through the finer points of applying for the free houses. In the week since Salemi's housing closeout was announced, Moss says he has received nearly 2,000 inquiries from interested buyers--including artists, philanthropists and even a television producer who envisions a DIY series built around renovating these dilapidated structures. He is so inundated with requests that he plans to offer a free downloadable letter-of-intent to his Web site for those who want to go directly to the Salemi city council.

Whoever signs on must be willing to pay $100,000 or so in renovation costs to bring the villas up to snuff. Experts estimate the basic renovation cost at between €900-€1,200 per square meter, based on local market prices for labor and materials without any extras. That hasn't deterred Michel Delran and Francois Teyssier, French natives who live in the United Kingdom. They hope to buy one of the villas to create a 100 to 200-seat performing arts theater where visiting artists could show their work. They plan to apply for a European Commission grant for the project, which would be a notable boost for this oft-forgotten part of Italy's troubled south. "When I discovered this project, I was thrilled. The concept is brilliant," Delran told NEWSWEEK. "Of course there are risks involved, but this is an opportunity and I hope it attracts like-minded developers."

The concept is inarguably one that would be beneficial to Sicily's stagnant economy on many levels. Increased revenue from taxes would boost infrastructure and there seems little question that unemployment, which hovers around 30 percent in this part of Italy, would decrease substantially as artisans are put to work on the renovations.

What about the Mafia? After all, Salemi is just a stone's throw from Corleone where Mafia don Bernardo Provenzano was captured in 2006. The project's leaders hope that successful anti-Mafia efforts, which in recent years have led to the arrest of hundreds of top-level members of the Cosa Nostra, will reassure buyers. Delran, for one, doesn't seem bothered by the possibility of corruption. "We can't ignore the Mafia," he says, "But by raising the interest in this project Sgarbi has given it visibility that should act as a deterrent. Corruption may be there, but with everyone watching, they may think twice."

To help stem an onslaught of undesirable (read: corrupt Mafiosi) developers, Sgarbi has devised a thorough application and screening process. Would-be buyers are invited to send a non-binding letter of intent, in Italian, to the Salemi city council outlining how they might develop the property. At the end of October, Salemi councilors will contact applicants whose ideas fall in line with their vision and invite them to demonstrate financial responsibility and to submit a building plan for approval. Foreign buyers will be required to hire an Italian-speaking power of attorney and are advised to hire a lawyer, preferably local, to help work through the details, not to mention an architect and contractor who are versed in Italian construction techniques.

How the villas, which are in various states of disrepair, are distributed has not been announced other than that each approved buyer will have a choice of properties based on their development plan. Priority would be given to VIP clients and celebrities. (Peter Gabriel, who already owns a villa in Sardinia, has reportedly expressed interest.) Sgarbi, who has gifted several villas, including one to Inter Milan football team owner Massimo Moratti, says the process will be closely guarded. But he vows to turn the hilltop village into both a city of art and an exclusive destination along the lines of Pantelleria, a super-luxe Sicilian island where Giorgio Armani and English football manager Fabio Capello have homes. "They will go to buyers who have both the aesthetic sensitivity and the economic resources to take part in this adventure," he says.

The city might also be making a comeback as a major tourist destination. Ongoing archeological digs under the Arab-Norman castle at the pinnacle of Salemi's old town have recently uncovered what looks like the floor of an ancient mosque dating back to the 9th or 10th century. Such a find, if its date can be confirmed, would be a rare exhibit representing Sicily's abbreviated Arab and Islamic phase. That alone would put Salemi back on the tourist map. But with the impending construction boom, anyone visiting Salemi's archeological treasures will also need to bring a hardhat.