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Challenges for rural areas

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key word: methodology and development, SME's and human resources
source: LEADER Magazine n°12
date of publication: 10/96

Everything in synergies

Vinschgau / Val Venosta (Italy)

The integration of the main sectors of the local economy is at the centre of the development strategy of the LAG of the upper valley of Adige. Conducted by partnerships of economic players, all the LEADER projects are bridges between agriculture, small industry and tourism. Ensuring "compulsory" training of operators at all stages of the project also helps strengthen the collective and integrated dimension of the actions implemented. The secrets of success.

Once past the Reschen pass (1507 m), only the bilingual road signs indicate that one has left Austria and entered Italy. Here in Vinschgau, the upper valley of the Adige river, and throughout the autonomous province of Bozen (*), the people belong to the "Alpine culture" that speaks a rugged singing German. "But here is where the sunny Southern Alps begin," Markus Joos, head of the agricultural sector for the LAG, explains. "It is the best of two worlds: beer and cappuccino, Germanic discipline and Mediterranean savoir-faire. I studied agronomics in Vienna, but I am proud to be Italian."

The LEADER area is comprised of twelve municipalities, almost all located in the valley, a vast basin (it is the largest morainic flow in Europe) that is extremely tight because it is surrounded by mountains ranging between 2000 and 3900 m in altitude. Its main resources are vegetables (especially cauliflower) and fruit (Southern Tyrol produces 10% of the apple production in the European Union), which provide employment for 17% of the working population, crafts and small industry (30% of the workers). Because of the mountains, tourism (1 million overnight stays in 1995, of which 600 000 in winter) is another major economic sector.

Like the province as a whole, the region has become very prosperous these past twenty years and has a situation of full employment, especially since many of the valley's inhabitants work in Grisons, the neighbouring Swiss canton. "But this image of prosperity is misleading," LAG President Kristian Klotz is keen to point out: "the term 'fragile rural area' is even particularly appropriate in our case. A slight change, a little more airline deregulation for example, would be enough to stop the 'tourism locomotive'. With roughly 40% of employment depending more or less on this sector, the entire local economy would collapse. It's the same thing for apple production which is competing with Eastern Europe. And if the recession were to last in Switzerland, we would have to reabsorb at least a thousand people on the job market..."

Helmut Pinggera, director of the LAG, justifies the development actions with this phrase: "it is in times of plenty that one must prepare for lean times."

Autonomy

Aware of these threats and the valley's relative isolation, the Province's officials launched a "Local Development Programme for Alto Adige" in 1989 and presented with the Bezirkgemeinschaft or community of municipalities a LEADER I project, now taken over by LEADER II. "From an administrative point of view, we have developed with our institutional partners an operating method which, I believe, is very efficient," Helmut Pinggera underlines: "in 1992, at the initiative of Dr Antonio Bacchin, the Autonomous Province created a specific LEADER budget heading which automatically incorporates the national and Community contributions. This fund enables the projects that we select to begin immediately, by pre-financing up to 50% of the costs. The Province directly pays the sum to the project holders, like a bank would do. By not having to worry about the financial administration, we can fully devote ourselves to our real job, technical assistance and the follow-up of actions on the ground. This structure, which combines the LAG's independence and legal protection, is one of the keys of our success."

Helmut Pingerra mentions other factors of success: "we give absolute priority to young people and we do not finance individual projects; all the LEADER I actions were on collective projects (pooling of operators, supramunicipal infrastructures, communication tools, studies, permanent expertise, etc.) which benefit all economic players... Our role is that of organiser, 'catalyst', with the players concerned responsible for implementing the project... In close collaboration with them, we prepare the entire project cycle, from design to marketing, from advice to, of course, vocational training; this is systematically a part of each project according to the needs identified by the promoters."

In 1992, the local action group set up a "permanent training centre" run by representatives of each sector of the economy. It is a "dispersed" structure: courses are held in the different villages using existing infrastructures. LEADER finances the cost of the instructors, who do not only come from Italy but also Germany and Austria if necessary. Since 1992, the centre has organised on average 100 training programmes a year on mostly technical topics, chosen by the "customers": electronics, industrial design, business management, quality control, courses for the wives of entrepreneurs, etc. In total, over 3 800 people participated between 1992 and 1995 in one training programme or another. "1 700 people or 1 inhabitant out of 10 took 60 courses in crafts!", Gustav Tschenett, coordinator of the training programme in the LAG. "The training also helps accelerate the grouping together of economic players who, in the beginning, tended to consider one another as competitors." A revealing example is that of the "Ökobau Vinschgau" (Ö.V.) consortium in the building sector.

Eco-building

Seven young entrepreneurs from the valley, each representing a sector of the building trade (bricklaying, carpentry, electricity, etc.), created a consortium in 1993, first of all to ensure full coverage of building sites. They also identified a new market, ecological building, a field requiring nonetheless technical expertise of which they had little. LEADER funding of ECU 25 000 enabled them to take various courses and to take advantage of the supervision of an expert from Munich. The education was put to use to build in 1994-95 an entirely "ecological" house. Since then, local demand for this type of building has steadily increased and already accounts for 35% of the sales turnover of the businesses concerned. A brochure to present the consortium (39 jobs) and to raise the awareness of the public - and architects - of ecological building was also published with the help of LEADER in 1996. "It's fundamental," Joseph Jörg, one of the seven entrepreneurs and coordinator of ÖV, says, "people are still too used to dealing individually with each guild. We are still unable to take charge of a building site from A to Z... We also have to include an architect in the consortium, because eco-building requires from the start a specific conception."

Marble

Public awareness and the awareness of entrepreneurs is one of the major concerns of Robert Koch-Waldner, president of the "Crafts" working group set up by the LAG: "in particular in the marble industry," he explains, "because it is a unique local resource but that needs to be energized."

Above the village of Laas, at an altitude of 2250 m, one of the purest marbles in the world is quarried. The blocks are slowly transported by funicular to the valley where most of them are sliced into thin slabs which are then exported all over the world. "It's a primary processing activity," Friedl Sapelza, LEADER head of the crafts sector, regrets. "Most of the added value is not created here, and the company (50 employees) is in a state of collapse. The challenge is to identify innovative products that could be manufactured on site by using for example the skills of the stoneworking school here in Laas."

Franz Waldner is the head of this vocational school. Fascinated with marble work, he has succeeded in establishing excellent relations with all the sector's players and creating dynamics which could eventually lead to a better local exploitation of the resource: assistance for new products, sculpture symposiums, catalogues, various publications, marble-related cultural events and daily guided tours between June and October of marble undertakings. "Until the tangible results of the approach are known, there is a good example of crafts-tourism synergy," Friedl Sapelza notes. "Since 1993, guided tours have on average drawn 3 000 visitors to this village where tourism had completely collapsed after the road by-pass was opened. They can also have a multiplier effect for the marble industry and benefit the creations of the technical school."

Synergies

The tours are organised by the intermunicipal tourist association set up in 1992 by the LAG in order, as Helmut Pinggera explains, "to improve the offer, to professionalise the operators and to extend the season with quality products rather than play with prices."

Through LEADER, several sites (rural museum, swimming pool, mountain huts, etc.) have been created or exploited. 80 km of bicycle paths have been built so that all the valley's important points can be reached by mountain bike, "an investment and a type of intermunicipal functioning that was only possible in the framework of LEADER, a programme that encourages cooperation between communities while providing real venture capital."

This cooperation between the different sectors is one of the main features of LEADER Vinschgau. In addition to the case of the marble industry mentioned above, a number of projects are bridges between tourism, small industry and agriculture: establishment of 14 small-scale cheese dairies in mountain huts; reintroduction of "Ur-Paarl", a traditional bread of Vinschgau which brought bakers, farmers and caterers to work together through the creation of a cooperative; exploitation of local sheepmeat, an action organised by 8 butchers and 5 restaurants; operations "Vegetable Week" and "Fruit Week" where various activities and integrated promotional means (posters, brochures, recipe books, special menus, etc.) serve to encourage the consumption of these local products by tourists and the local population.

Second level

With LEADER II, the local action group is continuing this same strategy to integrate sectors but orienting it more at target or even very personalised products: "we are holding discussions with the works council of a large automobile maker," Helmut Pinggera proudly announces. "We are currently building a tourist product for it that is truly tailor-made since it is adapted to each of the different professional categories of the firm's personnel. But once again, the economic players are preparing it as a group: we are responsible for the negotiation, we provide a certain venture capital, we organise the training courses, we make the various intangible investments... I call this the 'second level of development'; that's what LEADER is, and it's more difficult to do than to simply hand out public funds based on such or such a criterion..."

(*) The province of Bozen (Bolzano) corresponds to "Südtirol", a former Austrian territory transferred to Italy in 1919. Since 1969, the province benefits from a very large autonomy within the Italian Republic and the "Trentino-Alto Adige" region. Roughly 290 000 people (68% of the population) speak German which has the status of an official language. In order to respect this reality, the geographical names used in this article are indicated in their German form.

LEADER Vinschgau / Val Venosta
Surface area of the region: 1 280 km2
Population: 31 116 inhabitants
LEADER II financing: ECU 14 300 000
EU: ECU 3 575 000
Other public funds: ECU 5 720 000
Private: ECU 5 005 000

LEADER Programm Vinschgau / Programme LEADER Val Venosta
Zentrale Koordination / Coordinamento Centrale
Kugelgasse Nr 1 / Via Kugel 1
I-39020 Schluderns / Sluderno (BZ)
Tel: +32 473 615 500
Fax: +39 473 615 440


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