NSORB and the Norwegian Association of Local and Regional Authorities held a national forum dedicated to the potential of municipalities to position themselves as a significant factor in the local and regional economy. The forum was part of the program of the Annual Meeting of Local Authorities 2022.
Many municipalities direct their efforts to attract large investors, which often turns out to be fruitless, because one of the key factors for business is the availability of a sufficiently qualified workforce. The correct assessment of the potential of each region and the interests of the local community can reveal other effective opportunities for the development of the economic potential, said at the opening of the forum the Deputy Chairman of the Board of NSORB and Mayor of Dimitrovgrad Municipality Ivo Dimov. How to harness the economic activity of citizens and the entrepreneurial potential of municipal administrations in favor of local development is the topic discussed by mayors from Bulgaria and Norway.
Within the framework of Project No. BGLD-1.002-0001 "Growth through activation of local potential - GALOP" 10 Bulgarian municipalities had the opportunity, with the support of NSORB and the Norwegian Association, to prepare comprehensive strategies for their local economic development. During the partnership forum, representatives of the local authorities of the two countries had the opportunity to discuss the specific solutions that can be found to turn the municipality into a leading economic factor.
The Mayor of Troyan and Deputy Chairman of the Board of the NSORB, Donka Mihailova, presented simple examples of how using local resources municipalities can become independent and self-sufficient, and told about the first confident steps taken by the municipality of Troyan on the way to its economic independence. It's time to focus our efforts on effective use of the resources available to each region, stressed Donka Mihailova and shared: "The topic keeps slipping away from us, maybe because it's easier that way. We focus efforts mainly on problems. Each of us knows that in order to justify the need for European funding we must explain how serious the problem is; in order to receive a project under the national programs or budget funds from the government - we have to complain. The state has become accustomed to punishing municipalities with good economic indicators with less funding. We lived by the maxim – the worse, the better. This is starting to become a life philosophy. Is investing in the weaknesses and problems the only way to strong and sustainable development" - said the Deputy Chairman of the Board of NSORB and Mayor of Troyan Donka Mihailova.
Her presentation focused on the need to change the philosophy in local government in our country - from investments in weaknesses to investments in strengths, because they have the potential for stability and can become a locomotive for economic activity. The passive approach is characteristic of most policies in our country, including at the local level, stressed Mihailova: "We have forests and lands - we cut down the forests, lease the lands and stop there. We have human resources, we have people who carry the tradition in themselves, keep the cultural heritage in their hearts, and this is also a serious resource" - she emphasized and drew attention to the fact that during the new program period the philosophy of integrated territorial strategies can be transformed into an opportunity to change attitudes and use the potential of partnerships for prospective investments.
Tools based on community-led local development and local resources that local people have to invest in projects is a good opportunity with European funds to change the attitudes of municipalities to work more closely with the local community and direct their attention to projects, changing the economic profile. Mihailova pointed out that what the municipal teams lack so far are sufficient experience and sufficient motivation. "We are used to knocking on the doors of ministers and explaining how serious the problems are and how money will solve them," said the mayor of Troyan and emphasized that, in addition to the imposed "tradition", this passive approach is helped by the lack of a targeted state policy to promote entrepreneurship , the lack of will for decentralization to motivate the municipalities. To these deficits can be added the lack of adequate legislation that would allow municipalities to flexibly solve their local problems.
A number of good examples were given for the utilization of waste, for the development of communal activities by the municipalities themselves, and the emblematic example of growing agricultural produce on municipal land. The change in the way of thinking requires that the municipalities have assessed their options, formulated clear and perspective solutions and then seek support from the state for legislative changes or financial support.
A delegation of the Norwegian Association of Local and Regional Authorities took part in the event in Bulgaria. How small settlements find potential and ideas for their own economic stability were presented by Mr. Kristian Larsen from the Norwegian Association of Local and Regional Authorities, the mayor and administrative director of the small municipality of Lerdal, Odun Mo and Gün Leroy. Regardless of their size and harsh nature, Norwegian municipalities have successfully developed as attractive centers for tourists, successfully developed their own tourism companies, some are already developing as ship owners for cabotage and passenger voyages.
Norway's experience in planning and implementing tools to promote local development and municipalities wishing to upgrade their facilities was shared, including the Innovative Norway programme, the National Center for Rural Development, etc. The key factors for the economic utilization of local resources were highlighted:
- The ability to recognize and assess potential and strengths;
- The following of sufficiently long-term municipal development plans covering several mandates;
- The creation of permanent open processes/mechanisms for community engagement and mobilization;
- Cooperation for economic and institutional sustainability;
- Systematic financial and expert support by regional and national authorities.
"The conditions and structures in Bulgaria and Norway are different, and the Norwegian model cannot be transferred directly, but it can give ideas, provoke another way of thinking," emphasized Mr. Christian Larsen. According to him, a key aspect for the economic prosperity of the municipalities is the specialized local development companies, which are created at the initiative of the municipalities. Their role is to guide and support the economic activity of both citizens and public structures – they create strategies and explore opportunities, structure business chains and even implement various forms of business themselves. This enables local communities and municipalities to introduce more business logic into governance. An important condition for introducing the Norwegian model is good cooperation between the private sector and municipalities. Based on this approach, a whole network of consulting companies and entrepreneurship support centers at local, regional and national level has been built in Norway, which function effectively and develop modern business models in places.
Representatives of the municipalities of Dimitrovgrad, Isperih, Belitsa, Smolyan and Elena presented local economic projects and initiatives through which they realize the local natural, cultural, economic and demographic characteristics. Both successes and serious difficulties were not spared in the implementation of these initiatives.
The standard models for local economic development, jointly developed under project No. BGLD-1.002-0001 "Growth through activation of local potential - GALOP", were presented and discussed. Each forum participant also received a specially prepared manual dedicated to these models.