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Melgaço’s Transfer Story Report

Edited on

26 April 2021
Read time: 6 minutes

1. Planning a long wanted and challenging voyage.
Understanding the practice
Melgaço is the most northern municipality of Portugal, bordering on Galicia in Spain.
It covers a territory of 238 Km2 and has a population of 8,200 of which 3,000 live in the town of Melgaço with the remainder living in 34 surrounding villages.
Experiencing a long term decline process, founded in economic decline and outmigration and continuous loss of population since the ‘60s (there were 18,000 in 1960), Melgaço also faces a severe condition of aging of those who stay behind.
Apart from others, one of the consequences of this complex process, results in an oversupply of empty retail premises in the town centre, thus having a major knock-on effect on neighbouring shops and the general economic attractiveness of the town.

Recent year´s work in Melgaço´s problematic on an urban development perspective, has brought clear that, only by actively participating and benefiting from a knowledge share network, could we start to conceive an effective strategy to tackle the consequences of decline.
Small towns, with reduced technical structures like Melgaço, tend to forget that the way to solve their very ‘specific and exclusive problems’ might be by recognizing that many others are struggling with the same questions, at times some steps ahead on the path to dealing with it. This open-mind view of our own realities allowed us to tackle problems in a different perspective and ‘deep-dive’ in to rooted causes, thus empowering us with the courage to dare for different results just by simply doing differently from what’s has been done so far…
From the beginning, even when applying for acceptance as a city partner from Altena, we´ve been fully committed with the urge and need to engage in this good-practice transfer process.
The first network meeting in Altena (June 2018) became a revealing new glimpse of what might be facing ahead, thus giving us an overview of the twin activities - bringing empty shops back into use and in developing NGO platforms. Walking around Altena along with future partners, and testifying that ‘things’ could effectively be done just by ‘thinking’ a little differently, gave us the necessary boost to start working. Even before having our application approved (around December 2018), we took the last semester of 2018 trying to immediately develop and implement an Urbact-like framework based on a ULG stakeholders group.
By the time of the kick-off meeting in Aluksne (January 31st / February 1st) we´ve actually started to be given the first guiding lines on how to ‘draw a map for the upcoming challenge’. Presentations conducted by the Lead Partner (Altena) and the Lead Expert (Dr. Hans Schlappa) focusing on themes like : ‘Transfer plan’, ‘Diaries’, ‘Learning logs’, ‘Deliverables’ and ‘Thematic workshops’ presented us an all new terminology and concepts, taken that Melgaço had none experience in URBACT or on any other similar international network. Detailed presentations on what were the two good-practices to be considered (Pop-Up Shops and NGO platforms) allowed us to bring back home some important discussing materials, thus providing an inexperience ULG with some answers. The chosen transfer good-practice (Pop-Up Shops) seem to suit us perfectly, therefore seen as an effective tool to tackle one of our town felted problems – the declining economic and city-life dynamics.
The first ‘deep-dive’ thematic meeting on Pop-Up Initiative, held in Melgaço (11th / 12th of April 2019), gave us the opportunity to ‘bring indoors´ all partners and locally address and discuss this problematic with actual examples ‘on the field’. An introductory video presentation of the recent history of Altena, conducted by at the time Mayor Dr. Andreas Hollstein, made us all realize that some disruptiveness is sometimes needed when developing a strategy and leadership in situations ‘where there is no obvious way forward for a better future’.
A useful and action-centred ‘peer review’ on attending partners draft Transfer Plans, concluded the works and discussions.
The process of transferring the good-practices has involved a considerable effort of systematisation and understanding from all partners. In particular, with regard to Altena’s Pop-Up experience, it was at this point important for the partners to fully-understand the detail of the implementation procedures and how the foreseeable difficulties or obstacles could be addressed. From an early stage, the deepening of knowledge prompted fundamental questions which would inevitably be raised by our local ULG and which -even considering the various social and local contexts- it was urgent to address the Lead Partner - Altena - thus benefiting from its pragmatic approach. 

Some questions were then: ‘How to address and raise awareness from empty shops’ owners?’ making them join the programme or ‘what financial model should be propose to them?’, a rental revenue should be calculated?, how?, would this ‘lease’ be regulated by a formal ‘contract’? , between which entities involved?, what should be the recommended period of stay for each tenant?, in the case of degraded spaces, who would bear the costs of their rehabilitation? -landlord, municipality or tenant?, which strategies for dissemination and advertising of the programme have been used to attract new entrepreneurs?, what criteria and methods for selecting candidates?, what responsibilities and burdens should they bear?,assessment made, what was the investment (human and financial means) the implementation of the good-practice Pop-Up would have entailed for Altena and therefore could be expected by partners?, what was the reaction of the other traders (already installed) to the programme implemented by the municipality of Altena?, how big and how effective it got? (number of stores covered by the programme) and what percentage of those Pop-Up spaces have become ‘permanent’ by ending the Pop-Up programme?. . .
The importance of these issues and the difficult rationalisation of their responses justified the certainty that each partner of this network of cities, should carry out a complex process of adapting Altena’s experience to its local context, properly framing social specificities, economics, real estate context, legal compliance and assessment of available public resources. However, the prospect that the benefit of this experience could indeed be an effective tool to tackle the decline of our local economic fabric and the revival of urban life of our small towns, has always been an enthusiastic driving force of our common work.
Attending multinational seminars and work sessions brought us in to the privilege and opportunity of sharing and exchanging knowledge, finding out about other partners views and perspectives on similar problems, benefiting from the counselling and technical guidance of experts. 

2. Sailing by sight (not being sure how to work with the compass)
Explaining the practice locally
Nothing vaguely similar has ever been tried before.
The possibility of having real actions brought down-to-the-field, with close-to-nothing funds, seemed to everyone as a beautiful but inconsistent dream.
A group of citizens (among which the mayor sits as an equal) taking in to their hands the power to decide on urban problems/actions (the ULG) was an innovation in itself! Such a practice had to be trained and ‘learned’, and still presents (to me) as fragile and doubtable sustainable beyond Urbact/Re-GrowCity framework.
Some of the hardest parts were relate to with keeping the ULG members motivated and pro-active along the process. Citizens from small towns like Melgaço, suffering from long term decline processes, tend to disbelieve that something good can be done to revert the everlasting state of things.
A provocative “problem tree” drawing had to be used, intended to shake the comfortable establishment of the representatives of the ‘town living forces’ and ‘opinion leaders’ …. This “tool” was meant to be seen buy ULG members, focusing on how they have low self-esteem and low expectations of their town. They resented it, they felt (almost) insulted but got them talking openly about ‘decline’ and ‘shrinkage’, thus catching their different perspectives on context characterization and what might be the ways to tackle the problem.
Simply put, this process turned from earing the ULG members sadly commenting the closing of some another shop at the beginning of each of first meetings to, seeing everyone feel enthusiastic and express (namely in their Diary entries) their confidence in the success of the project in which (of course) they ‘always believed’…
Even from the press and the general media, we were often putted on-a-stand by questioning us whether this methodology would succeed, i.e. addressing owners one by one, asking them to give away their property for free, collecting the interest of (‘non-existing’) entrepreneurs or conducting the program with any kind of ‘allowance´ or financial support on participants.
Took a lot of work to ‘sculpture’ a public perception of the goodness of the program proposals and the feasibility of its objectives/goals. In the words of our communication expert, “perception is more important than reality”. Undeniably the communication strategy played a decisive role in the ever growing completion of the plan, ultimately providing that perception in fact changes reality!

3. Heading into High Seas (though few guiding stars in sight)
Adapting the practice
We´ve been given the opportunity (by the Lead Partner/Lead Expert) to adapt the good-practice implementing procedures to our local context. The feeling that in our case, some new tools had to be developed and some Altena´s examples had to be enriched, led us to take some risks along the process.
Quoting on the Lead Expert Dr. Hans Shlappa in his March 2020 “Mid-term Review Report” (page 6) report:
“(…) In Melgaço the ULG elevated the pop-up practice to a higher level than what had been done in Altena. The additional improvements include an open call for detailed applications to occupy one of the pop-up shops; a transparent approval process of these application by the ULG; an online map that shows which of the vacant shops is being taken up for what purpose; an ‘anchor shop’ in which space is shared between different entrepreneurs and where ULG and other meetings as well as publicity events take place; a system which enrols existing shop owners as supporters of the initiative and a Facebook platform that facilitates the sharing of information. The marketing campaign to launch the initiative raised the profile to regional and national levels and can be considered as exemplary good practice in its own right. (…)” “Mid-term Review Report” (page 6).
Lead Expert Dr. Hans Schlappa’s quote already enounced some new features of our process, but due to our lack of resources, we´ve had to be boulder and dare to approach the good-practice in a new perspective (when compared to Altena’s experience). An example of this could be the deal that we´ve presented the property owners.
Owners were invited to lend us (municipality) their empty commercial premises free of any charge during the two year duration of the program.
In order to regulate this agreement, we´ve established for the first time in the Re-GrowCity network the model of having the shops committed free of rend for the first three months of each pop-up project, and on 1 €/m2 on the second period of another 3 months. The municipality would guaranty that the shop would at time be returned in perfect conditions at the end of this try-out period and any exploring costs or expenses would be assumed by the tenants (water supply, electricity…) or by the municipality itself (small painting or locker-smith works).
And we´ve drawn a written contract to be signed with these terms. Consequently, we´ve had the future tenants formally agreeing with these conditions on their own, thus signing a similar formal contract with the municipality.
A constant monitoring of owners and tenants needs and concerns, but also ‘paying’ due recognition to their posture and courage by promoting them in every opportunity we had, either on media coverage as on social networks, granted the working group (ULG) a ‘trust capital’, that has made possible to welcome new (self-presented) property owners and a constant flux of new entrepreneurs applications.
By the end of the second year of implementation (2020), we´ve accomplished figures like:
- 13 entrepreneurial projects approved by the ULG, 6 of them became permanent, in or out of the pool of spaces joining the program;
- A total of 10 commercial premises committed to the program, 5 of which still under pop-up projects;
Until now, a large number of business Pop-Up projects have actually became permanent -thus fulfilling one of the major objectives of the program- and remain benefiting from our communication tools and strategy. Contributing to entrepreneurs business growth is by us assumed as an objective, an on the other hand, property owners get reassured by a stable and (hopefully) long lasting renting contracts for their once empty premises.

4. Over whirlwinds and lull (always hopping for the best)
Sustaining the practice locally
On an atypical year like 2020, as a result of the COVID19 pandemic outbreak, regular meetings of the ULG were abruptly interrupted. In this context of confinement, all communications within the group were limited to the on-line exchange of information and discussion of opinions via our Facebook's private page/group, a place where it was already practical for members to register journal entries.
Even though, the group has never stopped working, endeavouring to raise new spaces for the program, welcoming doubts and providing clarification to the many interested, accepting and analysing applications from proponents to Pop-Up occupations, responding to eventual requests of owners and tenants already installed. 
and interest from public opinion and media coverage. Taken that our communication strategy – apart from graphic design, public events, marketing, and public relations - has heavily bet on management and monitoring of social networks and on a “press office”, including the systematic making of a "press/media clipping" of the program, we´ve gathered a massive public interaction on our on-line communications and an expressive media coverage, all properly documented in a compiled “Press Book” – also shared and uploaded in Basecamp platform.
Joining such a diverse, multicultural international network, taken in the Urbact framework, requires a deep-dive study and comprehension of methodologies, procedures and specific tools needed to tackle the project.
This general understanding and knowledge perhaps is a key factor in building up an empowered civil structure like the demanded ULG. For us, building up a seriously committed, informed and effective group of citizens that might take into their hands, the thinking and the action over –some- urban problems is still a challenge that we´re not sure we’d accomplish.
The ULG has been one our main concerns through the duration of the process, since it is an awkward ‘variable’ in the –technical and political- ‘equation’ of urban intended driven actions.
Apart from the previously reported hard measurable outcomes, some ‘soft outcomes’ became surprising and evident. Right away, the notorious changes within the ULG. Along the process, reluctant members became confidant and the enthusiastic ones turned more concerned about enduring this proven practice.
For us, the most important ‘outcome’ is a kind of glimpse of a restored optimism (political and civil) in the potential of planning and put on-the-field experimental proven practices like this one. Addressing urban problems, effectively tackling its roots and consequences only becomes effective once one benefits from the exchange of knowledge, with the certainty that we´re not alone in our miseries and sorrows, and surely we can adopt a different perspective on reality, namely enhancing our qualities and positive values.
We kind of feel that –illusively- everyone thinks that the problem of empty commercial premises is ‘already gone’, a ‘thing of the past’, which doesn’t count as a – political- concern anymore.
On the other hand, for many, seems like it´s been discovered a ‘magic potion’ that can be taken in any ‘urban disease’ … procedures and methodology that can be ‘simply’ applied to any other urban issue, with – surely- expected degree of success….
For some, what has become successful was merely easy to be done in the first place, or simply the fortunate result of mere luck.
On a more realistic perspective, undoubtedly, Melgaço´s urban community and the ULG members in particular have come a long way, although in a relatively short period of time.
Sustaining the practice, pursuing its (urban) benefits probably depends more on ‘internal’ than ‘external’ conditions. Is to say that without a strong political commitment towards this type of practice and a more ‘self-driven’ ULG kind of work-group, most of what has been accomplished might fade out into a vague memory.
A community of citizens that can back-up these experiences (elected politicians, technicians, stakeholders…) should be prepared to assume due responsibilities and naturally, conscientiously take some risk of failure, but expectably test and verify more autonomy and ability to keep on managing this experience, enduring it beyond the formal ending of the program.

Melgaço’s ULG Co-Ordinator,
José António Lopes