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sorias hidden charms

Spain's Soria province is little-known even to many Spaniards but now local businesses and governments are taking the initiative to raise its profile to outside investors. Courtney Fingar reports.

After a long career in Latin America, Luis Corella, an entrepreneur from Madrid, had decided to move back to Spain and pursue a passion project. He wanted to use his extensive experience with hi-tech greenhouses – he had been growing tomatoes on an industrial scale in Mexico for the past several years –  to do large-scale cultivation of Red Naomi roses. Named after the supermodel Naomi Campbell, these roses are revered for their beauty and long-lasting qualities, 

His search led him to Soria, a province in the Castile-León region in the northern part of inland Spain. An area of peaceful natural beauty containing the Sierra de Urbión Mountains, the Laguna Negra Lake and the Cañón del Río Lobos nature reserve, Soria and its surroundings look the part, but its environment had more pragmatic attractions for Mr Corella and his rosy vision. Sitting more than 1000 metres above sea level with near year-round sun, low humidity and cool nights, the altitude and climate are ideal for the delicate art of growing roses. 

Expansion plans

Having invested more than €60m, Aleia Roses now produces 40 million roses a year (100,000 per week) and employs 380 workers in its 143,000-square-metre greenhouse in the town of Garray, near Soria. After only a year-and-a-half of being operational, the company is already planning to add another greenhouse. 

“The support and training programmes of Soria's official business organisation has been essential to our fast growth,” says Mr Corella, referring to the Federacion de Organizaciones Empresariales Sorianas (FOES), which plays a leading role in business support and investment attraction for the province.

“We’ve done this for Aleia and we will do it for any other company that comes here, because it’s important,” says Andrés Sienes, business development director at Invest in Soria,  which was set up in August 2017 and launched in November 2017 under the rubric of FOES to support inward investment. 

There are hopes that other investments will bloom in the area. Hit hard by the global financial crisis and subsequent eurozone crisis like many parts of Spain, Soria is now seeing economic recovery. “Recent data shows companies are growing and investing again,” says Maria Ángeles Fernandez Vicente, general manager of FOES. Unemployment levels, which had hit 25% by 2010, are now at 9%.

Ageing population

But the area has a demographics problem. Soria has the lowest population density of all of Spain’s provinces and one of the lowest in the EU, and it is ageing. More than 26% of the province’s population of 90,000 is older than 65 years of age, compared with the Spanish average of just under 17%. 

“We are very aware of the huge opportunities we have here, but also of the small population. It’s why we are trying to attract people and companies,” says Luis Rey de las Heras, president of the provincial council. “We have these resources that are not being used, and we want people and companies to come and take advantage of them.”.

Frustrated with the slow pace in growing the business sector and attracting people and capital, Sorian companies decided to band together and promote inward investment themselves under the umbrella of FOES. Investment can bring quality jobs, which, combined with Soria’s good quality of life and affordability, could attract new residents. 

Though little known outside Spain, and known within the country mostly as a pleasant weekend getaway location or gastronomic retreat, Soria has some potentially attractive attributes for investors, should they become aware of them. 

“We have a perfect location in the centre of Spain, two hours from Madrid and well connected to Barcelona, Bilbao, Valencia and other main cities. It gives access to a market of 15 million people. Our prices are very competitive and Soria is a very stable place politically and socially,” says Ms Fernandez. “Soria is also a peaceful place to live, surrounded by nature, with a renowned gastronomic culture and good social services. The city ranks as the best in Spain for quality of life.”

Incentives for investors

To entice more investors, Sorian authorities are offering industrial land at no cost; the only requirement is to generate employment in the area. Soria also offers economic incentives through different administrations and has exclusive grant programmes for industrial development within the province. These include non-refundable grants of up to 40% for companies that create new industrial activities, involve a strengthening or diversification of the local industrial structure, and create employment – one of the most generous such grants available in Spain.

Known for its delectable ham and pork, as well as its truffles and butter, Soria is a ‘foodie’ town. Agribusiness and food are among the sectors identified as having growth potential for investment.

Other sectors identified as having growth potential for investment include automotives, packaging, pharmaceuticals, wood and renewable energy. Soria’s environment lends itself naturally to renewable energy as well as growing agricultural products. The city of Soria is placed second in Spain for the percentage of power coming from wind power, while its altitude ensures it gets a lot of hours of sun per day, making it attractive for solar energy. 

There are other distribution, logistics and transport opportunities on tap as well, thanks to the city’s central location in Spain and good road transport connections.

A sharp reflection

Fico Mirrors is an automotive component maker that uses Soria as a strategic geographical point for the distribution of its products to customers that include major automotive original equipment manufacturers such as Ford, GM, Renault, Volvo and Volkswagen in 81 locations around the world. Part of Ficosa, a multinational group based in Barcelona, Fico Mirrors has been in Soria since 1991. It now produces approximately 17,000 mirrors a day and has a workforce of 700 workers in Soria, working across 31 assembly lines, four of which are robotised. More than 60% of production is exported.

“We have hired 85 new people just in the past year,” says plant manager Jose Maria Garces. “We do lots of training courses but we have no problem hiring people here. And when ranking Fico plants worldwide on productivity, quality, safety and absenteeism, Soria is number one.” 

This article is sourced from fDi Magazine
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