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November 21, 2005 4:57 pm

Turin prepares to welcome the Olympic Games

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Piedmont is buzzing as expectation builds ahead of February’s Winter Olympics. As Barolo is sipped in the wine country of Monferrato and truffles are consumed in the trendy restaurants of Turin, the region’s capital, the conversation turns to the Games.

A million spectators are expected. Volunteers are arriving every day to be briefed on their duties. The Games need 20,000 volunteers but 40,000 from around the world have applied.

However, for years Turin has been a city in decline. For decades it was associated almost exclusively with Fiat, the Italian industrial company producing cars that were occasionally the epitome of European cool. But Fiat’s long fall from the heights was Turin’s too.

The city’s population was 650,000 in 1955, reaching 1.3m in 1973. Today it has 910,000 inhabitants. Fiat employed 232,000 people in 1961 and it was believed that more than 50 per cent of the population was dependent on it. Today Fiat employs 15,000 in the city.

Not surprisingly, Turin’s unemployment rate had climbed to 12 per cent by 1991, far higher than other parts of Italy’s prosperous north. It is considerably lower now, but still higher than Milan or Venice.

There are other problems, too, in Piedmont. The area around Biella, home of the immaculately tailored suit, is launching a publicity offensive to protect itself and the rest of the Italian textile industry. There, as elsewhere in Italy, emerging Asian and eastern European markets are killing profitability and market share.

Under Valentino Castellani, the former mayor and current president of Toroc, the Olympic organising committee, regulatory and strategy plans were begun with the help of hundreds of businesses, government bodies, development planners and others.

The first strategic plan, created between 1998 and 2000, articulated a shared vision of social and economic development. It put forward 20 objectives and 84 specific actions. Areas covered ranged from improving access to Turin, to better educational facilities and wide-ranging urban renewal.

This year, a second strategic plan is to be published. Sergio Chiamparino, Mr Castellani’s successor as mayor and who is up for re-election next year, says: “In the second strategic plan we are putting the [building of a] knowledge economy first.”

Billions of euros have been put into infrastructure, much of it related to the Olympics but also encompassing high-speed rail links and enhanced road networks, to the dismay of some environmental activists.

There is a growth in services and information technology jobs, with Telecom Italia and Motorola, for example, leading the way. Turin already boasted SanPaolo IMI, Italy’s third largest bank and one of the dominant forces in asset management.

Mr Chiamparino says between 65 and 70 per cent of the city is now employed in non-industrial work, the exact number that worked in industry only a few years ago. “Turin is undergoing a metamorphosis,” he says. “There is the decline of big manufacturing and a changing of the structure of the economy. The rise of small software companies does not catch the eye of the public as much [as the decline of Fiat] but it is very important.”

A successful Olympics, and more importantly a successful use of the Olympics to bring sustainable development, is crucial. The city’s first strategy plan sees it as “not just a special occasion, it is something more; an event that can, and must, be decisive for a change of direction and of image of the territory that is hosting the Olympic event”.

Cesare Vaciago is the chief executive of Toroc and also general manager of the city of Turin. He says: “I have to explain to this town: ‘This is the occasion. We won’t have another Olympics in four years’.”

While establishing a broader and rejuvenated economy, Turin and Piedmont can draw on much more than industry in their history.

Paolo Verri, chief executive of Torino Internazionale, the development body which is co-ordinating the strategy plans, says Turin has also always been a cultural and philosophical centre – the home of book fairs, an association with the earliest days of cinema and the place where Antonio Gramsci, the Italian philosopher and activist, rose to prominence.

“Blue collar as an identity of the city lasted longer than the reality,” says Mr Verri. Although Fiat is over 100 years old, it really only attracted workers from all over Italy when it started to expand greatly in the late 1940s. That period wound down in the early 1980s, Mr Verri says.

But the manufacturing heritage has historic roots too, according to Mr Vaciago. He says the course was set by Turin’s leaders in 1864 when the city lost to Florence to become the first capital of Italy. The city’s response was to set the price of labour below that of rival areas to the west and south, and that attracted manufacturers. “This was the strategy that developed this town for 100 years,” says Mr Vaciago. “In 1999 the city was awarded the Winter Olympics and this is the next strategic occasion for this town.”

After the games have gone, Turin plans to keep itself at the centre of global attention with a series of other events starting with the Paralympics in March. “We must continue to have a programme of big events to maintain the activity of the city and the use of the Olympic buildings,” says Mr Chiamparino.

After the Paralympics there will be chess and fencing competitions, book events, Student Games and a congress of architects. In 2008, says Mr Verri, Turin has been designated World Design Capital. The programme is already being filled to 2011, when there will be celebrations for the 150th anniversary of the city becoming the first capital of Italy.

The next strand of sustainable economic activity is the use of the new infrastructure. Some of the Olympic villages will be used for expansion of the city’s two universities. One part is being used by the European Institute of Design. One building will be a modern art gallery, another an ice palace.

The city has purchased, for €70m, 1m sq metres at Fiat’s enormous and largely empty Mirafiori factory, for use by the polytechnic to teach engineering. In return Fiat has pledged to build Puntos in the city. There is the question of whether all these new venues for public events can run at a profit. And it remains to be seen if Turin’s revival can help the wider area.

Turin is an education centre for Piedmont, Mr Chiamparino says, and it can also portray itself to tourists as allied to the surrounding areas in order to increase business for all. “It’s a tourist attraction that cannot compete with Venice, Florence or Rome but it is an interesting package that can do well,” Mr Chiamparino says.

It all adds to the effort to create a much broader economy for the area. Mr Verri says: “Until 1993 Fiat was the sun at the centre of the cosmos, now the city is the new sun and Fiat is only one planet travelling around it.”

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