Wednesday, 9 May 2012

POLAND: Bałtów's Jurassic Park-- Community Spirit In Action ( K. Kapiszewski )

Bałtów's Jurassic Park attracted 70,000 visitors in its first year and employs 54.

Not everyone has heard of Bałtów, but plenty of people have. The commune, with a population of 4,000 including 600 in the main village, has appeared twice on 'Dzień Dobry TVN'. It might be day-time TV but it is also nationwide TV. The media like Bałtów because it is a good example of how to make something from nothing by working together. The commune attracts half a million tourists a year. Despite the name, Bałtów is not a seaside resort. It is located in the north of the Świętokrzyskie Voivodeship, far from the main transport links. How did a small commune, down in the doldrums, transform itself into a place where anything is possible?

 Poland's transition from Communism to capitalism was not kind to Bałtów. Unemployment reached 40%. There was no mobile phone coverage and no internet. Both the library and cultural centre were closed down. In 2001 a campaign against the opening of a new nightclub brought together a group of people, mostly teachers and local business people, who wanted something different for Bałtów. Together they founded 'Bałt', a grassroots organisation aimed at encouraging development. The founders all realised that the only chance for their commune lay with tourism.


Bałtowa also offers raft trips on the river Kamienna.
The first idea was to offer rafting trips on the river Kamienna. Jarosław Kuba, an animator and member of 'Bałt', told 'Przegłąd' in 2007: "It was a completely left-field idea. The river stank, people used it as a tip and the banks were covered with litter. When I explained to people that we could get money from the EU to buy rafts and offer trips to tourists they replied 'we are not beggars and we will not take any money.'"

Today he says, "In 2002 Bałtów was divided into 3 groups. 10% supported change, 30-40% were against and the rest sat on the fence-- they were not willing to help but would join in if things were successful." Members of 'Bałt' therefore started to present their ideas in the language of profite, explaining to people how they stood to gain by cooperating. The success of one of the supporters of change, who set up a profitable agro-tourism business, acted as an example for others. In 2003 14,000 tourists rafted on the Kamienna river and 18 people were employed in the rafting operation. The sceptics and fence-sitters saw that cooperation really did pay.

Members of 'Bałt' understood that if Bałtów was to develop it would have to offer more. That was when someone came across some information about local paleontological discoveries which were made in the 1970s. Scientists found footprints belonging to Allosaurus and a model of this prehistoric predator was built in front of the local government building. This model had become a landmark of sorts and so the idea came about almost by itself--- Jurassic Park. The park was built with the labour of the local inhabitants and outside help was only used for specialist tasks. When the park opened in 2004 it attracted 70,000 visitors and created 54 permanent jobs..

Success triggered a change in mentality. In the next local elections, 12 of the 13 seats on the commune council were taken by members of 'Bałt'. Business has boomed. There are now 25 agro-tourism establishments in the commune. As well as the dinosaur park and rafting, the commune now offers horse-riding and a safari park. The latest idea is 'questing'-- an outdoor game which involves searching for clues connected to local folklore.

The inhabitants of Bałtów make full use of the chance to make joint decisions with local government. They have many years' experience of involvement with the national programme 'Decydujmy Razem' ( 'We Decide Together' ) which is co-financed by EU money. The aim of the programme is to involve both local people and local authorities in dialogue, cooperation and joint decision-making. Thinking of the long-term development of the commune, the people of Bałtów are currently carrying out a Youth Support programme.

What has been the result of this community cooperation? "If someone were to propose building a space centre, the idea would be looked at seriously and if it was thought to be possible it would happen. When we started the rafting venture half the province laughed at us. Now people know that cooperation makes sense," says Jarosław Kuba.


Author: Kuba Kapiszewski  Taken from 'Przegłąd' magazine.

Also worth reading: 'The Beast in His Natural Habitat' from 'The Distributist Review'.

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