One of the economic advantages that Poland has over its East-Central European neighbors is its relative decentralization. Hungary is completely dependent on Budapest just as Bulgaria leans heavily on Sofia and the Czech Republic on Prague. Poland has a number of major cities, including Krakow and Gdansk. Moreover, decentralization was a chief aim during the transition period. In March 1990, Poland passed the Local Self-Government Act to shift economic and political responsibilities to localities. As a World Bank study of the reforms points out, successful decentralization served not only to mobilize more people at a local level in the tasks of reconstruction but it also reduced the fiscal burden of the central government.
Łowicz is a small city of around 26,000 people located about halfway between Warsaw and Lodz. It suffers from many of the economic problems that plague the rest of the country. Its population has dropped by more than 10 percent over the last two decades as young people in particular have left for Warsaw or for economic opportunity abroad. The area took a major economic hit during the economic upheavals of the 1990s. But a dairy cooperative survived and is now thriving. A second major firm, processing fruits and vegetables, also provides local jobs.
"There was a third firm here in the Communist era called Syntex that produced socks, but it collapsed in 1995," the editor of the local newspaper, Wojciech Waligorski, told me in an interview in his office in August 2013. "It was rebuilt with foreign capital, and it went bankrupt again in 2008 or so, I don't remember exactly. Instead of this one big factory, there are plenty of small sock-producing factories near Łowicz established by people who were working for this factory before. They have experience and money enough to establish their own enterprises. So there are at least 15 or 20 small producers near Łowicz and in Łowicz itself. So people can work there. A lot of them work also in very small private businesses. Some work in the public sector. A lot of them have their own trucks and work in international transport."
As Waligorski points out, jobs are still the number one concern of people in the area. And he doesn't think that the local government has done enough to attract capital to create jobs.
"Kutno, a town 40 kilometers to the west of Łowicz, was hit much harder than Łowicz in this transition period," he explained. "In Kutno there were a lot of industries of different kinds that went bankrupt, and the level of unemployment there was well above 20% in a certain period. But the local government there was able to buy land in large quantities at that time so that later they were able to offer investors big pieces of land. And now they are starting to get new investments. There are some factories from Italy, from Japan, and so on that have moved there. In Łowicz, the case is different. The town doesn't have a lot of land to offer. It's really a small town. The borders should be enlarged to have more possibilities to attract investments."
Still, he's happy with the political impact of local self-government. The citizens in Łowicz have a relatively high turnout in the elections, and local government has changed hands on several occasions.
"Here in Łowicz itself, this self-government revolution in 1990 changed a lot," Waligorski concluded. "This was a success overall in Poland. For me, a sign of whether democracy is healthy or ill is whether real change can happen. And in 1994, 1998, and 2006, we survived a real change. Completely different people took power here. That's proof of a healthy democracy. And it happens on the local political stage. It's not the case with national politics where Polish democracy is not as healthy as at the local level."
When we first met 23 years ago, Waligorski worked for a newspaper devoted to sobriety. He updated me on the state of alcoholism in Poland. We also talked about the impact of former Communist officials, the role of religion in Łowicz, and what people expect from a local newspaper.
What would you say are the major issues that people are interested in Łowicz? You told me that the size of your paper depends on the season and also on advertising. But I'm curious what articles have been most interesting to people, what has created controversy, and so on?
We are covering all kinds of stories concerning local life: local government, political quarrels in the local government, the local economy, social stories about interesting people living here, religious life, cultural life. We cover it all. Local sports. We have eight pages of sports, normally, so it's quite a lot. What people like most is finding something really interesting in our local life. Of course, crime is a hit on the first page. A man stabbed his wife in January. She was very known and he was very known because they had a hairdresser's salon. So of course people like things like this. That's obvious everywhere in the world. But I cannot precisely say what makes our newspaper interesting. I think the key is that we cover everything, but only local things. We really do not write anything about what's taking place in Warsaw or in Łódź or even in Skierniewice. The key to success is covering only local things.
Once we conducted a survey, but the results of the survey haven't been confirmed. But we did confirm our suspicions that there are people who are looking in the newspaper for local sports, there are people who are looking for obituaries, there are people who are looking for local government affairs, there are people looking for stories about people living here, there are people looking for well-written big stories about the economy. So, really, there's no one topic that is the most interesting. Everything here in Łowicz is interesting for them.
But the one constant for people living here is that they are really worried about joblessness. It's not joblessness as such because the level of unemployment here is about 10% or even less. As a matter of fact, it's lower because many people are working in the gray market. So it's not a tragedy here. But people have this belief that the town isn't developing as they would like it to be, that they are forced to look for work somewhere else - for example, in Warsaw. There are really a lot of people commuting to Warsaw to work. So, that's the constant concern for people here: how to find a good job.
Are there possibilities of new factories or new investment coming to Łowicz? Is that something that the local government is actively trying to bring to Łowicz?
Yes, they are trying, but I do not think they are successful in this area. For example, Kutno, a town 40 kilometers to the west of Łowicz, was hit much harder than Łowicz in this transition period. In Kutno there were a lot of industries of different kinds that went bankrupt, and the level of unemployment there was well above 20% in a certain period. But the local government there was able to buy land in large quantities at that time so that later they were able to offer investors big pieces of land. And now they are starting to get new investments. There are some factories from Italy, from Japan, and so on that have moved there. In Łowicz, the case is different. The town doesn't have a lot of land to offer. It's really a small town. The borders should be enlarged to have more possibilities to attract investments.
Two weeks ago -- I wasn't here since I was in the mountains at the time -- but my journalists wrote an article about it. The Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk came to Łowicz just to open officially not a factory but a branch office - the headquarters are in Warsaw -- for exploration of shale gas. American capital is involved in this company. It's called United Oil Field Services, and they have established their center here. It's well organized with a lot of special equipment, with laboratories, electronic devices, and so on. But it's only a branch office, a base for working everywhere in Poland. It's something. Some people will get a job here. It's a success for local government to attract this company here. But as a whole, I would say Łowicz is not coping very well with economic problems.
How do you evaluate the competence of local officials?
It's not so bad. Many different parties have governed the city over the last 23 years. Some of the mayors and officials were okay. The scale and the kind of problems that we had to cope with were quite different at the beginning of the 1990s. It has changed a lot.
Now since 2006, there's a mayor who has won two terms. He's quite popular. He's really listening to the will of the people and really trying to solve people's problems. I appreciate his kind of engagement. But in terms of attracting outside investment, he does not have good competence or had good achievements. It could have been much better. It has to be much better. He's popular and independent. During his first election in 2006, he was supported by both Law and Order Party (PiS) and Civic Platform (PO) voters. His citizen's committee has a majority on the town council. I think he's going to win a third term, though it's not certain. He won his first term in a landslide with 75% of the votes. The second time was not much worse because it was close to 70%. That means something. We can say it's a good transparent democracy in Poland now - at least on the local level. As journalists, we really haven't found anything to object to.
To read the rest of the interview, click here.