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A HERO'S JOURNEY through the land of dragons

Edited on

26 April 2021
Read time: 5 minutes

Nyirbator's Transfer Story

Once upon a time, in a (not so) faraway constitutional republic, there was a town called Nyírbátor. We could not have found a better setting for a story.
For starters, its name stems from the Old Turkish word 'batir' or Mongolian 'bator', originally meaning a 'good hero' and corresponding to 'bátor' in modern Hungarian which means 'brave' in English. In addition, the history of the small settlement is rife with legends featuring truly horrifying and scary villains, the most infamous among them the "dragon of Ecsed" – defeated by Vid, the ancestor of the Báthory family – and Countess Elizabeth Báthory, the most prolific female serial killer ever (at least according to Guinness World Records). So to summarize – strangely appropriate location name: check, mysterious backstory: check.
However, in the lifetime of our heroes Nyírbátor faced challenges that were quite different from the above-mentioned villains – challenges that couldn’t be solved with a sword or an arrest and subsequent incarceration. No, people were leaving the town due to other reasons: the pulling effect of two county seats located within a 50 km radius, the housing problems within the city and internal (mostly ethnic) conflicts between the residents. Although the economic situation of the town was really advantageous, there was a noticeable disconnect between the citizens and the city itself, a lack of attachment. The heroes of our story – the mayor and his team – have worked tirelessly to change this status quo to create a stronger community... but they needed help.

"I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it's very difficult to find anyone." This famous quote uttered by Gandalf the
Grey to Bilbo Baggins could have easily been the first line of the phone call which introduced the Re-growCity project to our heroes; one of the partners
left the project unexpectedly, creating a vacancy in the line-up. The description – helping cities revitalise their public services and the economy,
regenerate the urban fabric and develop civil society – wasn’t much to go on, but there was no time for anything else at that point. Anyway, the
partnership itself was more intriguing: it consisted almost exclusively of smaller cities, each with less than 50,000 inhabitants. "Underdogs" working
together against all odds is not an everyday occurrence in real life – who wouldn’t like to be in a story like that? This initial interest has led to…

As previously mentioned, the mayor and his team have been working on the problem of Nyírbátor’s declining
population for a long time: they operate an Industrial Park supported by a unique investment incentive programme
(creating approximately 5,000 new jobs), built a Business Incubator Centre and implemented several CLLD –
Community-Led Local Development – projects to involve the residents in sustainable urban development.
These have led to significant successes, but our heroes knew that there’s still room for improvement; this URBACT
project "arrived" at the perfect time to learn and try something new. As a bonus, the Re-growCity transfer network was
built around a good practice that has been proved to actually get results in the case of Altena, a German town very
similar to Nyírbátor. Therefore, joining the project sounded like a risk-free opportunity rich in potential rewards
– an irresistible combination.

The first transnational partner meeting the team of Nyírbátor has attended was in Latvia in late January 2019. The winter wonderland of Alūksne
provided a perfect backdrop for learning about the project and meeting both the Lead Partner (represented by the mayor) and the other members of the
network. Just like the average protagonist of any story, the appearance of our heroes in the project was in medias res: although this was the kick-off
meeting, there was another one in Altena earlier where the partners had the chance to "see" the good practice first-hand. Therefore, the topic of the
kick-off wasn’t the object of the transfer, but the transfer method itself: every city team had to prepare a Transfer Plan, outlining their most important
actions for the next 24 months. Although our heroes perfectly understood the description in the Application Form and the template of the Transfer Plan,
they – due to their lack of hands-on experience (see above) – misunderstood the "spirit" of the good practice... and only realized this later on.

Arriving back home from the kick-off meeting, our team started to write feverishly to catch up with the other partners and finish the Transfer Plan on
time. The good practice selected by Nyírbátor was the pop-up shop initiative; this meant – at least according to their understanding at the time – that
entrepreneurs can test the viability of their business idea by renting empty and otherwise under- or unused properties at a low cost, and after a
predetermined trial period they can sign a new contract at market conditions (or close the shop if it was not successful). The team focused on the effect
on the economy and planned to use the project as a stepping stone for aspiring entrepreneurs, hoping that this opportunity would convince at least
some people not to leave the city but try their luck in business instead. The original Transfer Plan was geared toward this goal, including a citizen
survey about the local demand and a short entrepreneurship training course, among other things. A job well done! The first deep dive workshop came
just in time to prove our heroes wrong...

The second project meeting in Melgaço was organized specifically for the partners who decided to transfer the pop-up shop good practice and this
meant that the workshop was focused on the inner workings of the initiative and on what it meant to Altena. One of the masterminds behind the idea –
Julia – was present and gave an inspiring lecture about the nature of the good practice; it has become clear that the pop-up shop method’s goal at the
core is not about opening new businesses, but rather ensuring a vibrant community life through encouraging people to EXPERIMENT with new ideas.
It should mean supporting arts and crafts, music and theatre groups, talented local citizens etc. to organize short-term projects in empty buildings to
showcase and promote their work. Naturally, any short-term pop-up shop could lead to business activity later (as it did in many partner cities, but that's
their story to tell), however, this is not the original "endgame", only a pleasant side-effect. Our heroes had only a few days to think things over and
modify the Transfer Plan – it wasn’t easy, but the encouragement of Julia and the other members of the Altena team helped.
This first "test" also highlighted the disadvantage of our team compared to the other network partners and culminated in an idea: a private (bilateral)
study tour to Altena organized during the spring of 2019; the hope was that getting more familiar with the success story of pop-up shops will help the
Nyírbátor team to better integrate the practice into a local concept. Andreas, the mayor of Altena was very accommodating, just like every other
member of his team; they personally showed the delegates the city, the still working pop-up shops and the NGO Platform (the good practice the other
half of the network has adapted), answering every question in the meantime. It was clear from that point on – if it wasn’t before – that Altena was truly
an ally and mentor in this project and not just a designated Lead Partner watching from the sidelines, eating popcorn.
Having the Lead Partner as a powerful ally was great and all, but it meant little to nothing in a local context. The most important ally of our heroes was
clearly the ULG – the URBACT Local Group. These representatives of the local government, businesses and NGOs started working under the same false
premise we mentioned earlier but adjusted quickly when it became necessary and brainstormed about possible short-term pop-up shop projects and
locations. However, the first doubts have already begun to creep in…

The story unfolded in two separate "storylines" from then on. After finding a young local resident willing to
take on the management of a pop-up pub, the municipality has started to prepare the paperwork for the
initial contract. Our revitalized team members have also managed to design an official logo and an
infographic for the initiative (which was a lot more fun than the previous attempt of a call for operators).
These few months during the summer of 2019 were very exciting and full of hope; after our heroes were
taken down and demoralized by their – mostly internal – "enemy" and hit rock bottom, they had an
important revelation, restoring their resolve (just like in a fictional story).

The story unfolded in two separate "storylines" from then on. After finding a young local resident willing to
take on the management of a pop-up pub, the municipality has started to prepare the paperwork for the
initial contract. Our revitalized team members have also managed to design an official logo and an
infographic for the initiative (which was a lot more fun than the previous attempt of a call for operators).
These few months during the summer of 2019 were very exciting and full of hope; after our heroes were
taken down and demoralized by their – mostly internal – "enemy" and hit rock bottom, they had an
important revelation, restoring their resolve (just like in a fictional story).
It turned out that although the second call for pop-up shop operators has garnered a lot more attention than the first (including an interview in the local
television and a few news articles), the true success came from the opening of the pop-up pub. People – both young and not-so-young – have started
to gather there in such huge numbers that it immediately became clear that this pop-up shop won’t be "just" a pop-up for long; it will become a long
term, successful business contract, creating several jobs beside providing entertainment for the local residents. As the date of the midterm report and
the first project-level transnational meeting since the kick-off was rapidly approaching, our heroes felt that finally there will be something they can
show the other partners as the host of the meeting.

Our heroes were so content that even the lack of other applicants for new pop-up shops couldn’t rain on their parade at the time. In January 2020
Nyírbátor hosted a transnational meeting where the local team had the chance to showcase their progress (one of its locations was the pub itself),
while the network has started to plan the upcoming meeting in Altena where the partners – including our heroes – can present their work to "outsiders",
too. The mayor and his colleagues hoped that the widely reported success of the pop-up pub will result in citizens gathering their courage and
approaching the municipality with their own ideas without further prompting. However, they have forgotten one of the inexplicable – but still
undeniable – laws of the known universe, Finagle's Law of Dynamic Negatives: "The perversity of the universe always tends toward a maximum."

As a sign of respect for our Lead Partner (and to somewhat "lighten" the negativity regarding the following events), here’s a German joke which is
strangely appropriate for what happened next:
“The pessimist sees a dark tunnel;
The optimist sees a light at the end of the tunnel;
The realist sees two lights at the end of the tunnel,
and the engineer can see three idiots standing on the rails.”

Joking aside, the coronavirus disease first identified in Wuhan, China in December 2019 has since spread worldwide, leading to an ongoing pandemic
situation and harsh (but necessary) quarantine measures in many countries, including Hungary.

In Nyírbátor, this crisis has overwritten every project effective immediately, since nothing was – and is – more important than ensuring the continuous health of the local residents. Hopefully, the vaccination process will prove to be successful and life can return to "normal" (or at least close to that), but until then we can only theorize about the future of the initiative.
The mayor and his team will certainly not give up on the project: they have a database for possible pop-up shop locations in the city (continuously updated) and an ongoing open call for new pop-up shop operators. It is possible that the pandemic might delay new openings, but the municipality intends to uphold the offer after the project’s official end date, too. Based on the example of the pop-up pub, the plan is to both wait for formal applicants to sign up and look for people informally. This wasn’t the original idea, but in light of the current economic downturn it would be helpful to waive every – even symbolic – fee and provide the locations free of charge for those interested. Although the latest legislative cuts from the government endanger most local municipalities, this shouldn’t be a problem in the long run since the pop-up shop good practice doesn't require large investments.
Our heroes’ journey is nearing its end, but what awaits them at the next steps remains to be seen…