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The Right Fit

The CEELI Institute Is Right at Home in a Renovated Mansion in Prague

Posted May 23, 2006 3:53 AM CDT
By James Podgers

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Even though the move-in process still has a way to go, the CEELI Institute has settled quite comfortably into its new home.

And the institute already has welcomed a notable array of guests to that home, a historic villa near the heart of Prague in the Czech Republic.

The CEELI Institute was created in 1999 as an educational and training center for lawyers and judges in countries undergoing democratic transition. Many of those countries are in the regions served by the ABA’s Central European and Eurasian Law Initiative, which gave rise to the institute. Washington, D.C., lawyer Homer E. Moyer Jr. and Tallahassee, Fla., lawyer Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte, a past ABA president, founded CEELI in 1990 to assist democratic reform in countries formerly under Communist rule.

Moyer also was instrumental in founding the institute, and he serves as president of the Friends of the CEELI Institute Board, one of its governing bodies.

Moyer says the institute has trained judges from at least 29 countries, including some of the world’s hottest trouble spots. In the past year, the institute hosted 140 judges from Iraq for training, as well as members of Afghanistan’s supreme court and judges from Serbia.

The CEELI Institute “has a singular focus on helping the rule of law take root and flourish” in countries trying to implement democratic systems, says Moyer. “We’ve learned it’s a complicated transition and a long-term process.”

Perfect White Elephant

The “house hunt” that brought the CEELI institute to Prague began soon after the institute was created. There have been a few bumps along the way.

During the search process, the Groebovka Villa, owned by the city of Prague, was suggested to Moyer. Located in a park on the slopes of one of Prague’s many hills, the villa had been built in the 19th century for a Czech industrialist. But it fell into disrepair after being used for years by government-sponsored youth groups—both Nazi and Communist. “It was a wonderful old building that had become a white elephant,” Moyer says.

City officials accepted the proposal to house the CEELI Institute in the villa—other suggestions were to turn the building into a casino or a disco—triggering a few early protests that the structure should have been set aside for public purposes. The parties negotiated what amounts to a 50-year lease with unusual terms: Rather than pay conventional rent, the CEELI Institute would pay to renovate the building.

The rehab costs were estimated at slightly more than $7 million, covering renovation of the entire villa into reception areas, classrooms, study areas, kitchen and dining facilities, and housing for 45 people in the main building and a nearby structure. (A third building has been taken back by the city.)

The U.S. Agency for International Development provided $3 million in seed funding, and between $2 million and $3 million more was raised from private sources, says Moyer—enough to renovate the first two floors of the villa. Both floors are now in pristine condition, decorated in the Renaissance Revival style also found in other Prague public buildings from the late 19th century.

The institute is still waiting to receive $5 million earmarked by Congress to help cover the costs of the remaining rehab work. The State Department, however, has not yet released the funds, Moyer says.

“We’re at the point where we could resume work,” says Moyer, who says the delay appears to be a matter of procedure rather than politics. The alternative would be another private funding campaign, he says.

Either way, the CEELI Institute is home. “The potential of the institute is enormous,” Moyer says.

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