For sale: a small town in Germany

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The Independent Online
A TOWN is for sale. Not all of it, just the parts that served what for the past 50 years was its main industry: government. No longer the capital of Germany, "The Federal City of Bonn" will lose even that appellation when the people who run Europe's most powerful country take their business to Berlin next summer. In their wake, wonderful bargains await prospective buyers.

Take this desirable property, slightly out of town but easily accessible by motorway: situated in picturesque Marienthal, where some of Germany's best red wines are produced, there is a government complex with 897 offices, 939 bedrooms, and sleeping space for 3,000 people. So what if it lies 360ft below the vineyards, and if the various parts are linked by a rabbit warren of tunnels nearly 12 miles long?

Marienthal is the bunker where Germany's leaders would have hibernated through a nuclear winter. It became somewhat redundant around 1989, and has not been modernised since. The maps hanging in its offices still show the Berlin Wall and the mined border separating the two Germanys.

But in all other respects, it is in mint condition. The owners think the bunker could be turned into a research centre. The punters, 16 of whom have made undisclosed offers, have other uses in mind. One entrepreneur wants to turn the place into a Mecca for in-line skaters. Two restaurateurs have jointly proposed a techno-disco, which they hope would attract ecstatic dancers in their thousands from all over Europe. Someone else wants to grow mushrooms in the musty galleries, while the locals have predictably earmarked Marienthal as a rather large wine cellar.

Should this gem be snapped up, there are still some other nice pieces of real estate on offer. For instance, there is Petersberg, the government guest house perched on top of a hill on the right bank of the Rhine. It has an interesting history. The Allies used it as their headquarters after the war, and it subsequently became the place where heads of states slept when they came calling on the German government.

This property is not likely to be handed over in a hurry. The Japanese sniffed around it and went away, upon discovering that Petersberg's splendid building comes not only with a glorious view, but also with steep maintenance costs for the serpentine private road that links the summit retreat to civilisation below.

Although the government is bringing 21 national agencies and quangos to Bonn to replace the migrating ministries, 15 per cent of the office space it currently occupies remains up for grabs. Some Bundestag buildings have found new tenants, but the plenary hall where MPs sit remains orphaned. There are plans to convert it into a conference centre. Embassies, legations, and diplomatic residences are also falling under the hammer. Deutsche Telekom is buying the British embassy. The Americans, with a much larger building to dispose of, are finding the task more difficult.

But ambassadors' villas in the leafy streets of Bad Godesberg are selling like hot cakes. "Millionaires from south Cologne are queuing up for these properties," said Klaus Westkamp, the Construction Ministry official co- ordinating the move to Berlin.

In fact, real estate prices in general are stable, indicating confidence in Bonn's future. "There will be no ghost town here," Mr Westkamp predicted. "Bonn is a flourishing city."

That is partly up to the federal government, which is spending a total of DM2.8bn (pounds 1bn) to ease the pain of its departure. For that, Bonn is getting a spur to the Cologne- Frankfurt high-speed rail link that is to be ready by the millennium. The roads are also being upgraded. The main north- south highway, nicknamed "diplomats' race track", will be brought up to Formula 1 standard just as diplomats rev up their engines and head for Berlin next year.

Six ministries, including defence, will stay on, and United Nations agencies are coming to replace the outgoing expense account internationalists. The private sector is also helping out. Telekom was "persuaded" to make Bonn its headquarters when it was still a state-run monopoly. It has created 9,000 jobs, almost making up for the exodus. Money is being thrown at scientific institutions and research centres that want to relocate to the Rhine. Bonners will not go hungry.

But as locals settle back into the provincial obscurity to which they are accustomed, material comforts do not seem to offer adequate compensation for their diminished status. Bitterness with the way their town of 300,000 was shafted by the Berlin lobby still rankles, seven years after the Bundestag took that fateful decision.

"We think we were a very good capital," sighed Mayor Barbel Dieckmann. "It was from here that the state was built; a state with a stable democracy that fostered world peace." Unlike Berlin, she might add.

"Bonn will be a different city in the future," she said. "It will be less in the focus of world politics. But a city does not disappear from the world just be- cause it is not a capital. It can still be a metropolis. Just look at Zurich."