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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – A local sports hero, a New York real estate developer and a well-known architect are teaming up to build a soccer stadium in Haiti's notorious Cite Soleil, hoping to revive the seaside shantytown known throughout the hemisphere for its extreme poverty and gang battles.
Foreign investors in Haiti have largely directed their efforts at rebuilding from a devastating 2010 earthquake, focusing their funds on Port-au-Prince and the overlapping cities that make up the capital and the country's sleepy coastlines.
But ex-Haiti soccer star Robert "Boby" Duval has masterminded the $5 million stadium project, which he says will address problems that predate the 2010 disaster. Developer Delos LLC and architect Carlos Zapata are working with him on the project in a slum on the outskirts of the capital, full of tin shacks and open sewage canals formerly shunned by investors, avoided by diplomats and at one point considered so dangerous that U.N. peacekeepers would only enter it in armored vehicles.
"Cite Soleil was destroyed way before the earthquake," said Duval. "This stadium is going to clean up Cite Soleil.... and I'm betting on it."
The 12,000-seat stadium will be called the "Phoenix Stadium," referring to hopes that the shantytown will rise up.
The organizers also hope the stadium, scheduled to break ground within six months and due to be built by the end of 2013, will bring an initial 500 jobs and inject commerce into Cite Soleil, where politicians have long gone so far as to pay gang leaders to stir up trouble.
The arena will also host concerts and serve as a cultural center to foster a sense of community.
Duval said it will also serve as the home to a new soccer league for some 350 players, independent of the Haitian Federation of Soccer.
For the past 18 years, Duval has run the L'Athletique D'Haiti sports program from a field at the northeastern edge of Cite Soleil, giving some of Haiti's poorest children life skills through sports. Some 2,000 youths participate in the program, which has been featured along with Duval in Sports Illustrated and ESPN.
Duval said the introduction of a second soccer division will raise the quality of Haiti's national league while providing a future for his budding professionals.
"Let me do my own thing so my kids can make some money," Duval said at his nonprofit sports academy.
Federation officials didn't return calls seeking comment.
The current league and smaller clubs play their home games at the only official stadium in Haiti's capital, the Stade Sylvio Castor in downtown Port-au-Prince. Until last summer, Its parking lot was used as a makeshift settlement for several hundred people displaced by the earthquake until city authorities paid some of them to leave even if they had no place to go. League organizers wanted to reclaim the stadium to resume matches.
The bulk of the new stadium's financing will be provided by Delos, corporations and individual donors. The land, 12 acres in all, was donated by a banker, Duval said.
On a recent Thursday morning, dozens of youths sprinted across several adjacent fields in pursuit of a soccer ball at L'Athletique D'Haiti. Just outside the cinderblock wall, a police officer waved cars past a checkpoint, his face masked so that gang leaders wouldn't recognize him.
"I can't wait for the day that the (stadium) arrives," 17-year-old student Jean-Gilles Fritznel said as he leaned against a goal post. "I will have a hard time sleeping the night before, waiting for the sunlight to see it."
The director of a neighborhood youth program welcomed Duval's project and hopes it will change the culture of violence in the shanty.
"Soccer players will be role models," said 38-year-old Olerch Alexis. "The youths will want to play soccer instead of pick up guns."
That such an ambitious project hasn't happened before in Cite Soleil is "mind-boggling," said Morad Fareed, Delos LLC's co-founder and managing partner.
The architectural plans for the stadium are still in the works, but Zapata said he wants to build the facility with left-over rubble from the quake. The site, on the northern side of Cite Soleil along a thoroughfare named Route Neuf, is filled with piles of rubble and gravel that Duval had trucked in to build the stadium.
"We want to use what exists," Zapata, who designed the renovation of Soldier Field in Chicago, said by telephone from his firm in New York. "We don't want to import everything from another country."
Despite Cite Soleil's international reputation as a no-go zone, Duval said he's confident that soccer enthusiasts will be willing to venture there for matches.
"I'm not interested in having it in any place other than Cite Soleil," Duval said.