European Capital of Culture contest may help stopping the brain drain from Hlohovec

Život v Hlohovci, May 2020

We discussed the intent of contesting the title of ECoC 2026, the opportunities that it may bring to Hlohovec and the importance of community participation with the Hlohovec ECoC 2026 Project Director – Juraj Surma.

When and where from came the idea to contest the ECoC title?

The idea came in October last year, when the then unofficial information appeared that Slovakia would be hosting ECoC in 2026. The idea came from the mayor.

How did you personally become involved in the project?

I‘ve been professionally involved with the town since 2014. I participated in several managerial processes, such as development of the mayor’s secretariat, the head of MsÚ office or the client services centre. We stayed in touch ever since, our main topic being town development and how things can be improved. We’ve discussed the ECoC project in such manner. Straight away, we investigated whether it is important for Hlohovec or not. We came to a conclusion that the substance of the project is precisely what our town and region need. Besides, I have a background in consulting, I managed artistic projects and I studied at schools where I learned to lead and manage complex projects like this.

What is the point of a project like ECoC?

It’s not about, as it may appear, changing the culture in town. The point is it is about changing the culture of the town. That’s a substantial difference. We recognised that this is a strategic objective and a project that we should be part of.

Slovakia is going to have an ECoC in 2026 and the contest between Slovak towns is happening now?

That’s right. Currently we are in the pre-selection round. We’re calling it a semi-final to make it clearer. It consists of two stages. The first one is a submission of our application until October 31st. The second one is a presentation in front of a committee of specialists sometime between October 31st and January 31st, 2021. The committee will then select towns that will advance into a second round.

How many towns are applying in the first round?

Let’s count them. First of all, it’s the so-called “golden belt”: Trnava, Hlohovec and Nitra. Then there’s Trenčín, Banská Bystrica, Martin, Žilina and Prešov. At this point we know about eight towns taking part.

How many will advance into the final round?

Sometimes it could be three towns, other times there are four or five. It depends on the strength of the submitted projects.

And the winner will come out of these?

Yes, just like when Košice won in 2008, which was a title for 2013. However, it is not guaranteed. If the winner from Slovakia won’t meet the challenges of the European Commission, i.e. they are deemed as not being good enough, the selection committee has a right to say: it’s not OK. The country may not get the title at all.

What is your main objective? What does Hlohovec want out of it?

Our objective is to end the population drain from Hlohovec that has been actually happening for some time now. That’s why we want to change the culture of the town, so that people will stay, and young people won’t have a reason to go to high schools elsewhere. So that people who go to universities, would come back after some time and look for employment here.

This is giving the whole project much more sense! What could Hlohovec gain or develop as a direct result of this project?

The European Commission based on the suggestion of the selection committee will sign a contract with Hlohovec about the delivery of the ECoC project for 2026. From 2022 to 2026 is the preparation stage. This will have two layers. The first one is the programme, meaning how we can elevate the culture of the town based on the programme that should stem from the needs of people living in this town and region. The second aspect is that all of this must happen somewhere. The project is thus delivering both content and facilities. EC supports economical, social and urban development of towns through the ECoC.

Therefore as part of the project are also investments into development, refurbishment and renewal and creation of new spaces, where people will deliver and enjoy the ECoC programme.

So the committee will be asking what will Hlohovec look like in 2026?

Quite the opposite and this is very important! The committee will be asking, what will Hlohovec look like in 2028 when it’s all over. The long-term sustainability of the project won’t be evaluated for another four years, until 2030.

What sort of finances, which the town could get for the projects, are we talking here?

Financing of towns that contest the ECoC title is from multiple sources. The town that becomes ECoC will be awarded the €1.5 million Melina Mercouri Prize. That is however that last sum of money that will arrive. It is an award for the town that meets all the criteria and it’s up to the town how it will be used.

Are there other sources of financing?

Other sources are the state budget that will have allocated funds from EU funding. For instance Mr. Raši spoke about some €20-30 million that Košice got as part of the EcoC. There is also Trnava region and Hlohovec town budgets. These will be primarily used for developing of the infrastructure and so on. Then there are various european arts funds focused on supporting culture and arts, that will be used purely for the programme. There are also private funds such as the Japanese Mitsubichi Corporation fund, thanks to which each ECoC also had a Japanese festival. And finally there are finances from private business enterprises. For instance in Košice, a Steel Park was developed by the US Steel company. There can be many sources and it is only up to us, what programme we’ll create and where we want to place it.

The selection committee will not only observe what we’re planning to develop, but also whether it is a sustainable programme in a long term. They will be asking: What’s next? So that we don’t end up like many Olympic cities after the event, that are left with many unused facilities.

How would you like to avoid this?

This is why it’s important to get ideas from the citizens. That should add meaning and provide framework within the right venues. This will give life to projects that should help in convincing people to stay in this region. For instance in the applications that we received so far, we can see that the House of culture is an important topic for many. This could be a way to its reconstruction. But the content won’t be only about the sort of performances that should be there. The House should provide space for various activities, community initiatives of various groups of people. We register interest in these types of activities, although they are not happening because there are no suitable spaces.

There is also an initiative here to develop a daily care centre for people with disabilities. This is also a way how we can make this idea happen. We just need to talk about these ideas. There are children here with various needs and we can explore the options we have for them. Spaces are one condition, but programme is also important.

What is the key aspect at the moment?

Currently our efforts are focused on approaching as many people as possible to take part. We have received over 180 project intents and ideas so far. The council alone can’t put the ECoC programme together. My job is to turn to various people with an offer to send in their ideas before the deadline of May 31st. This can be done through a simple web form It’s really about concept ideas and project intents at this stage. Later, in 2022 we will be discussing how we can deliver them. The response so far is really awesome, despite some ‘hates’ coming our way as well. But that’s everywhere now. Often it’s about political point scoring.

What are those ‘hates’ about?

It’s important to understand that we’re not talking about us showcasing something. Because many people were asking what have we got to show? It’s quite the opposite! The question should be, what do we have to and what can we change? It’s a massive opportunity. As I said before, we’re not going to change the culture in the town, rather of the town.

So the current state of the town culture is not as important as is the change that can occur. Do I understand this correctly?

Indeed. Victory is in taking part itself, in participation from the citizens. It’s essential that they will send in their ideas, there is no limit on their number.