Germany acts to revitalize Ruhr mining region

June 27, 1993|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Staff Writer

ESSEN, Germany -- The closing of the Zollverein coal mine seven years ago marked the end of an era in this once-rich industrial region.

The 60-year-old mine had once been a wonder: Almost completely automated, it sorted 12,000 tons of coal a day, reputedly the highest production in the world. Its demise was another blow to the Ruhr Valley, which had propelled this nation into the industrial age and supported West Germany's "economic miracle" following World War II.

Instead of being left to rot, though, the Zollverein's buildings are being used as offices, dance halls and classrooms -- part of a $3 billion plan to revive this region.

As the United States and other nations cope with the painful switch from smokestack economies, the Emscher Park project has attracted international attention for its broad sweep, decentralized planning, and government commitment to structural economic change.

Yet results of the project, which covers 2.5 million residents in 17 cities, are not as clear-cut as proponents or critics of such government intervention might believe. Some of the 81 proposals already show signs of transforming their communities; others seem little more than cosmetic surgery.

At the Zollverein coal mine project, for example, smokestacks have been demolished, and the 20 buildings on the 30-acre site have scrubbed down and repainted. Several halls already accommodate new, rent-paying tenants.

Susanne Belau, a principal of the verb graphic art agency, moved into one of the mine's engine rooms three months ago. The bright, high-ceilinged offices, she says, offered more space than the agency's cramped offices in downtown Essen. They also provided local flair.

Other tenants include a private art gallery, a dance company, workshops for a state-run theater and the architecture department of a local university. All pay rent to the Zollverein, which is run jointly by the city of Essen and the state government's land reclamation department. So far, about $20 million has been spent on the Zollverein, which is about one-third finished.

But other projects in the Ruhr Valley seem to add little to the region's economy.

In the city of Oberhausen, for example, the state is transforming the old guest house of the Thyssen steel company into an ultramodern "Technology Center for Environmental Protection." Although the building has been superbly renovated, it is basically a $15 million new home for an existing government agency.

Many projects in the Emscher regional plan are designed to provide the foundation for a rejuvenated local economy, says Colleen Schmitz, who works in the planning office for the region's 81 projects. A dozen projects involve cleaning up the Emscher River; others call for the Ruhr's housing to be renovated.

This scrub-down could make the area more attractive to residents and new businesses, and end the flight of young people from the Ruhr Valley.

Such a regional turnaround would be almost unthinkable if the government did not help out, Ms. Schmitz says. Instead of allowing cities to decline and watching residents move to other regions -- as happened in the United States' Rust Belt during the 1980s -- the state is trying to guide this change.

"If you simply wait for things to happen on their own, then they might never happen," Ms. Schmitz said. "We don't want to become like the U.S. Rust Belt."

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