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BEIRUT: When the renowned Brazilian architect Oscar Nemeyer designed the 1-million-square-meter Rashid Karami International Fair Complex over 50 years ago it was meant to be the centerpiece of a thriving port city. Instead after decades of civil war and government neglect, it stands as a symbol of Tripoli's declining economic fortunes.

In the effort to revitalize both the structure and the city, Cabinet is considering a plan to turn the deteriorating exhibition center into a permanent re-export center for Chinese products. The project would allow Tripoli to become the transit point of all Chinese-made goods to Arab states.

Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel met with the former-head of the Lebanese Association of Industrialists, Jacques Sarraf - the project's creator and one its three Lebanese investors - to discuss the details of the development and its potential impact on local industrialists.

Sarraf says the project would revitalize the ailing city by generating thousands of employment opportunities and boosting its stagnant tourism and construction sectors.

"Tripoli has not benefited from the Karami center," said a statement from Sarraf's office. "There have hardly been any exhibitions over the past few years. Occupancy rates at the hotel are low, there has been no maintenance of the facilities, and it looks like a public market place."

If Gemayel endorses the project and it is approved by the Cabinet, the entire complex will be refurbished and construction will begin to upgrade the 20,000-square-meter capacity of its exhibition halls to 80,000 square meters.

Ahmad Mallak, secretary general of the complex's board of directors, said 1,000 Chinese firms had already committed to setting up permanent exhibition pavilions in the facility, though he declined to specify the leasing rates. Two or three Chinese representatives would preside over each station, which would not only require the construction of at least 500 new housing units, but also boost sales for local furniture and household retailers.

A joint holding firm has been established to cover the $45 million building costs, with Chinese and Lebanese investors each providing half the necessary start-up capital. Mallak said two local businessmen, in addition to Sarraf, would finance the Lebanese end of the deal, and a subsidiary of the Chinese Trade Commission that deals with Chinese imports, Chinamax, would fund the rest. If Cabinet approves the project, construction will be completed by April 2007.

"Everyone in Tripoli is supporting the project - politicians, MPs, and the municipalities," Mallak told The Daily Star.

"If Tripoli becomes the regional transit hub for Chinese imports entering the Middle East, it will attract investors and visitors from Arab countries and we will have new hotels and restaurants," he added.

Supporters discuss only the positive trickle-down implications of the permanent Chinese Exhibition center on the economy. Sarraf's statement estimates that in the first five years after its completion, 400,000 new visitors will come to Tripoli a year, and during the following four years, that number will increase to 600,000. About 2,000-3,000 new jobs will also be created to soothe Tripoli's unemployment problem.

But the project has come under fire from Lebanese industrialists outside Tripoli, who argue that an influx of cheap Chinese commodities might undermine the competitiveness of locally manufactured goods.

"The Association of Industrialists is worried because it thinks there will be direct sales of Chinese goods in the new center, but it's only going to be an exhibition ground for Chinese products," said Mallak.

"Rather than forcing people to go to China, the Chinese can market products in Tripoli to the region," he added.

Under the plan, regional companies would sign contracts to import Chinese goods to their countries. While some merchandise may be shipped from China, most of the companies would have warehouses in one of Tripoli's two free-trade zones or access to storage space to be built at the Karami Center, just 2 kilometers from the port.

( at least there is some progress in face lifting tripoli )
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