The Polish city of Gdańsk is synonymous with the resistance and freedom movements of the past century. Post-war generations throughout the world remember the groundbreaking demonstrations organised by Solidarity, an independent labour union established by campaigners from the Gdańsk shipyard during the communist era. But while the city remains proud of its history and its role in overthrowing communism, it – along with its Tri-City conurbation partners, Gdynia and Sopot – has its eyes set firmly on the future.

The region is not afraid to put its money where its mouth is, making a considerable investment in the development of a highly skilled and educated workforce. According to Invest in Pomerania, it is home to 29 higher education schools and has about 25,000 graduates. Traditional industries vie with modern high-tech enterprises to attract the brightest and the best to join their workforce.

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Getting moving

Doing business in Pomerania has not been without its challenges. The region’s crumbling infrastructure has come under heavy criticism in the past. But significant investment is helping to raise the area’s road, rail and air networks to international standards and enabling the region to take advantage of its strong strategic position. As the beginning of the Euro 2012 football tournament draws close, the region is on course to complete a considerable number of large infrastructure projects.

Boris Wenzel, CEO at DCT Gdańsk, the operator of the Baltic’s most modern container terminal, says: “Pomerania looks like one big construction site and thanks to this, DCT will soon have good connections to Poland’s main motorways.”

As a port city, Gdańsk faces competition from terminals such as Hamburg in Germany. However, Mr Wenzel is upbeat about prospects for the company in the face of the global economic downturn. 

He says: “Crisis forces companies and people to change their habits [in order] to remain competitive and survive. Most lines still use Hamburg as a hub, because they have been doing so for the past 10 or 20 years, even though it is the most expensive solution to service Poland and central eastern Europe destinations. The crisis, fuelled by constantly declining freight rates and the over-capacity of large vessels, has all the ingredients to force shipping lines out of their comfort zone [making them look] at a new strategy to serve the Baltic Sea that will save them and their clients money. We can be at the heart of this new strategy.”

Maersk Line is one of the shipping companies active in the region. Its head of east-central Europe and head of Maersk Polska, Thomas Bagge, says: “Prior to the introduction of our direct service from Asia to Gdańsk, the Polish market was covered by a network of feeder connections to and from major ports in Europe. The introduction of our service didn’t just follow business trends, but was very much a trendsetter itself. Having a leading container shipping line’s vessels call at a port in the region didn’t simply bring prestige to Pomerania, but it triggered a number of initiatives and delivered significant business opportunities to the region and the whole country.”

EU funding

The development of Pomerania’s infrastructure has been helped by financial backing from the EU. Marcin Faleńczyk, deputy manager at Invest in Pomerania, says: "Traffic jams and narrow, bumpy roads are now giving way to modern junctions and fast multi-lane routes. Of particular note is the Sucharskiego Way. This will ease traffic in the centre of the city, and is worth about 1.2bn zlotys [$370m], with 40% of funding coming from the EU.”

Of the financial backing the EU has provided for the region, Mr Wenzel says: “Until recently, EU funding has been used to finance west to east infrastructure developments. These have benefited foreign ports serving destinations in southern and central areas of Poland at the expense of the Polish ports, since north to south infrastructure development has been delayed. As German and Benelux ports are further from the Polish hinterland than home ports, Polish consumers have had to pay more for imports. Polish exporters have also lost out because logistic costs are less competitive than if their goods were routed via local ports.

“With the rapid development of DCT as a hub port, the priority for EU funding must now be to ensure Gdańsk has good transport links with the Polish hinterland. That starts with the infrastructure that allows cargo to flow efficiently in and out of the port. Currently, EU funding is supporting the development of road access to the northern terminal of Gdańsk into a four-lane route. The first two lanes will open from mid-2012 and the road [will be] fully completed in 2013. Additionally, the EU is helping to finance a dual-track upgrade of the rail bridge linking the northern port to the main network in 2013.”

Mr Bagge agrees: “As a shipping line, we obviously benefit from investments in port developments. As a carrier offering a wide portfolio of services, including inland, we are also interested in the improvement of the rail network, roads and logistics infrastructure.”

Adapt for the future

Shifts in the global economy have given Pomerania's shipyards a real incentive to adapt. Maritime construction firm Crist, which has a plant in Gdańsk and a second in Gdynia, says that in addition to traditional shipbuilding, it is now involved in projects that involve specialised coastal structures, sea transport and vessels for mining sea resources. Krzysztof Kulczycki, a trustee of Crist, says that the biggest challenge to face the company in the past few years was the division of one of its dry docks into two, which took place in September 2011.

“It wasn’t easy and was preceded by months of preparation. However, this operation opened up some new possibilities for us and strengthened our position in the shipbuilding market. After the division, it is possible to build one ship and renovate a second at the same time, which enables the company to work faster and more effectively,” he says.

Gdańsk shipyard has taken a similar route to diversification; besides ships it is now involved in steel construction and the manufacture of wind turbines and electric power stations. In October 2011, GSG Towers and Budimex signed a 180m zlotys contract for the construction of a wind turbine factory on the grounds of the Gdańsk shipyard. According to Andrzej Stoklosa, president of Gdańsk shipyard, this will be the largest factory for on and offshore wind turbine production in the country.

It is not only traditional industries that are adapting, however. The region has taken advantage of new opportunities to develop its technology sector by creating a number of designated areas designed to encourage innovation such as dedicated parks, clusters and incubators.

Tri-City’s 300,000 square metres of office space, for example, are designed for business process outsourcing and shared service centre companies, and there is an extra 61,200 square metres of space due to be made available very soon.

With more than 4000 information, communication and technology companies, and Intel's largest research and development centre in Europe, Pomerania is now marketing itself as the most advanced ICT cluster in the country. Research and innovation remain key. “Thanks to EU funds, young people are now able to transform their business visions into thriving enterprises,” says Mr Faleńczyk.