Lublin, a city of 349,000 people located in eastern Poland, has many historical landmarks, but one rises above all the others. Located on top of a hill overlooking the city centre is Lublin Castle, a grandiose building with a history dating back to medieval times. Established in the 12th century, it is one of the oldest royal residences in Poland and the place where the Union of Lublin was signed in 1569, establishing the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to form what would be one of the biggest economies in Europe.

The castle's fortunes, however, have tended to reflect those of Lublin itself, and indeed the whole of Poland. The castle stood tall in the 16th century, when the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth thrived, but it fell in disrepair when the country's fortunes declined in 17th century. More recently it has served as a prison for the Tsarist, Nazi and communist regimes that have at various points ruled or occupied the country.

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The road to 2020

 

Lublin's creative class

Lublin 2013-2020 development strategy focuses not only on improving infrastructure and links between academia and business. A great deal of the strategy focuses on soft factors such as improving the city's openness, social participation and the creative spirit of its residents. “As stated by Richard Florida [a renowned urban studies theorist], big business looks for creative people and creative people look for creative cities,” says Michal Furmanek, brand manager at the Lublin City Hall's department of strategy and investor services.

To showcase creative types that reside in Lublin and its vicinities, Mr Furmanek has been running the multimedia platform Kreatywni, or 'Creatives' in English, since 2013. Each year the team behind the Kreatywni project chooses 12 Lubliners that do extraordinary things, and tells their story during a photo exhibition and on the project's website. Previous editions have featured a street-cruiser maker, a beekeper and a low-fi music producer.

“We do this to help them with publicity, but also to inspire others. Passionate creatives like this are the ones that determine the attractiveness of Lublin as a business destination,” says Mr Furmanek.

As the role and status of the castle has changed over time, so too has the city it overlooks. Lublin went from being a prosperous trade city in its 16th-century heyday to being cruelly dubbed as 'Poland B' by fellow Poles, a regressive, desolate place with few prospects.

“In recent years we have managed to fight that notion, thanks to the fact that we are a big academic centre and we have received many subsidies from the EU. But our ambition is to be seen not only as the capital of eastern Poland, but also to regain the economic potential that Lublin once had,” says Mariusz Sagan, a director at the Lublin City Hall's department of strategy and investor services.

According to Mr Sagan, instrumental to this resurrection has been Lublin's development strategy, which was published in 2013 and outlined the city's development until 2020. “We tried to involve as many people and entities as possible in our strategy, from businesses through academia to regular Lublin residents. It took us two years, but now we have a document truly in tune with what this city needs,” says Mr Sagan.

According to Krzysztof Zuk, the mayor of Lublin, in his foreword to the development strategy report, the connectivity and accessibility of the city are key areas that have been in need of improvement. In that regard, the city has been making headway of late. It has gained a new airport and a long-awaited bypass, while works on a highway linking Warsaw with Lublin, and then the border with Ukraine, are at their final stages.

Additionally, by 2020 Polish State Railways is planning to complete its Warsaw Lublin route modernisation project, trimming the journey time by one-third to approximately 90 minutes. “It is hard to get investments if an investor has a difficult time getting to your location. It is as simple as that. Luckily, our situation in that regard has changed dramatically in the past two years,” says Ireneusz Dylczyk, the commercial director of Lublin Airport.

Entrepreneur climate

Another area highlighted in the Lublin 2013-2020 strategy is improving the city's entrepreneurship climate. Between 1999 and 2002, Lublin saw a number of large companies operating in the city either go bankrupt or merge with other firms and move out of the city. Amid that gloom, Dobromir Piekarski, a Lublin-born IT entrepreneur, founded his company, eLeader, which focuses on IT solutions for businesses.

“I am from Lublin so I never really thought about running the company from anywhere else. Yet when we started in 1999, there was no market for us here or anywhere in Poland, so we had to search for markets abroad,” says Mr Piekarski. The firm's foreign focus proved to be successful, and it now has clients in more than 70 countries, while eLeader's mobile commerce spin-off, Finanteq, is currently looking to expand to the US and the UK.

To ensure that Lublin produces more entrepreneurs in the future, the Lublin 2013-2020 strategy outlines a plan to support business education, as well as the transfer of scientific research to the business sector via technology transfer centres and the Lublin Science and Technology Park. “When I ran my business here [in the 1990s] making contacts with public institutions was more difficult and many entrepreneurs, including myself, would limit our contact with the local administration to the bare minimum. I am very glad to see that now the city has a different approach to business,” says Maciej Maniecki, an entrepreneur and a pioneer of Lublin's IT scene, and one of the authors of the Lublin 2013-2020 strategy.

Zoning up

Apart from the entrepreneurs, Lublin is also targeting big investors. One way it is trying to do that is through the Lublin Subzone of Euro-Park Mielec (LSEPM), a special economic zone established in 2007 which offers tax incentives as well as financial aid for buildings, machinery and technology purchases.

“When I came here for the first time, eight years ago, all that was here was rapeseed fields. I took my wife and told her what we are planning on building here, she just looked at me with disbelief,” says Jan Kidaj, vice-chairman of Aliplast, an aluminium construction materials provider and the zone's first tenant. “Now there are so many companies here. [We are frequently getting] invites to the opening of new facilities or production lines,” says Mr Kidaj.

Apart from Aliplast, the LSEPM, located on a 116-hectare site close to Lublin's bypass and airport, has attracted 17 other companies. While the zone operates at a 47% occupancy rate and still has a number of plots available for potential investors, the Lublin 2013-2020 strategy aims to expand the LSEPM to up to 198 hectares in the coming years.

While there is no specific sector that the LSEPM is targeting for investments, and its tenants range from packaging manufacturers to biotech firms, Lublin authorities have narrowed their focus to a few strategic sectors. “Based on the clusters and resources we already have and our economic development strategy, we are particularly interested in sectors such as automotives, business process outsourcing, biotech and software and IT,” says Mr Sagan.

A helping hand

Lublin City Hall's investor services department has been targeting investors by attending international fairs such as Mipim in Cannes and Expo Real in Munich. It has also been actively encouraging investors to visit the town. The local council also provides soft landing services that range from helping workers to find accommodation and schools to any other ad hoc needs. Such assistance might be typical for larger cities or regions, but, at least in the central and eastern Europe region, they are rarely found in a city of Lublin's size.

The make up of the investor services department is also unusual, given that it ranges from a PhD-holding, US-educated director to a Chinese-speaking project manager with a degree in cosmology. “We have a mix of people with academic, private and public institution backgrounds, so we are able to talk to business, build links with universities and find a way through any potential bureaucratic hurdles,” says Mr Sagan.

Eyes east

Despite being only an hour's drive from the Ukrainian border, investors in Lublin tend to hail from Western countries, with the majority being from EU countries and the US, according to data from greenfield investment monitor fDi Markets. Nevertheless, the Lublin authorities are keen to attract investment from their eastern neighbours.

“We want to be not only a capital of eastern Poland, but also a capital of the Eastern Partnership [an EU initiative focusing on co-operation with post-Soviet countries] and a gateway to Ukraine and the East in general,” says Mr Sagan.

Pawel Prokop, founder and CEO of Fundacja Inicjatyw Menadzerskich, a non-profit promoting good practices in public administration that works in the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States, says that Poland's view of Ukraine is a particularly strong one, given the closeness in location and the strong tradition of the two countries doing business with each other.

Lublin's potential as a hub for Ukrainian companies entering the EU was recently confirmed by Petro Poroshenko, the president of Ukraine. During a visit to Lublin in December 2014, Mr Poroshenko stated that Ukraine's road to Europe leads via Lublin, while Mr Zuk, Lublin's mayor, highlighted that out of 18 sister city agreements Lublin has, half are with Ukrainian cities. Close links with Ukraine are also visible in the demographics of Lublin's student population. Ukrainian students make up half of the total foreign student population in Lublin, according to City Hall estimates.

“We are in a different country, but close to our home country and in a culture that is close to ours,” says Wiktoria Herun, a Ukrainian-born employee of Lublin City Hall's department of strategy and investor services. “That is why I decided to stay in the city after graduating from the university here. I feel welcome here.” 

This is quite a change in attitude towards Ukrainians, who for a long time in Lublin had been more associated with the local bazaars on Poland's border that sold discounted alcohol and cigarettes. But Lublin and Lubliners are changing, in no small part thanks to generous help from the EU cohesion fund. A big white billboard in front of Lublin Castle informs visitors that Brussels-approved funds reached the castle as well. It would seem that both the castle and the city are entering a new chapter of their history.