Sunday, June 26, 2011

All together now: "An attractive place for investment"

SOFIA, Bulgaria – I'm sitting in a conference room in an ancient Balkan city, and other than the fact that the remarks are in Bulgarian (and being translated), you'd think I was listening to any Chamber of Commerce official in Charlotte, or Raleigh, or Atlanta.

Petar Dikov, the city architect for this Bulgarian capital, is showing slides labeled, “Sofia – an attractive place for investment,” and later, one that lists the No. 1 strategic goal as “maintaining a high level of economic growth through development of a knowledge-based economy.”

Sounds like home to me.

Dikov, who was named to his post five years ago, notes that he said, "The first priority is infrastructure. The second priority is infrastructure. The third priority is infrastructure.” Also sounds familiar, especially after a series of slides showing plans for streets and roads, including what looks like a ring highway with a northern chunk missing. (Of course, I don't know at this point whether it's missing because it hasn't been built, or because there's a mountain or something in the way.)

He goes through a list of all the attractions Sofia has – dozens of theaters, universities and cultural attractions. It's within 10 kilometers of skiing, within 20 of a large artificial lake.  Sofia is a “modern European metropolis with dynamic economy and rich cultural life.” Check. Substitute the word "Atlanta" or "Nashville" or "Houston" and the speech would be the same.

But then, he notes that corruption here is a problem. You wouldn't hear THAT in the good old generic Chamber of Commerce talks in the U.S.

I'm here attending a conference of the International Urban Fellows Association of Johns Hopkins University – a yearly gathering of urban planners, architects and scholars from around the world, all of whom have spent a semester or a year at some point in the past, studying at Hopkins.

I'll write more, later, on the conference's key theme: the management of public spaces (parks, streets, greenways) in Sofia, a city where for decades people depended on the communist government to do all that.  (To be continued.)

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