Interview with Kaunas Mayor Arvydas Garbaravicius

  • 2004-08-12
What are the prospects for economic growth in Kaunas?
We have good prospects. Kaunas is a young city - we have a lot of students and a highly educated population. Kaunas has a chemical industry, light industry, heavy industry, and we have potential to develop these. Kaunas wants to make itself attractive for investment, and we want our path to investment to be different from other cities, so we have created our own independent plan.
We've repaired our water system, we have a landfill with capacity for 10 to 20 years. We practically don't have traffic jams, and we're investing in two major highway interchanges. Plus, there's our geographic position, which could be our most important asset, especially our efforts to make our city a transport hub. With government help, we're constructing a logistics center to capitalize on our location between two major routes - the Moscow-Klaipeda or Moscow-Kaliningrad railway and the Via Baltica highway, which runs from Helsinki to Berlin.

In spite of Kaunas' infrastructure and location, it's not a secret that most investment in the country goes to Vilnius. How do you plan to attract more investment here?
Investment is already coming to Kaunas. We don't have any official figures, but the level of investment is high. This year construction worth 300 million litas (87 million euros) - 400 million litas is taking place in Kaunas. It's just that growth happens differently here. All the new offices and factories are spread out, and there are no tall buildings, so it's not as obvious. For instance, construction on the water mains that is very important to the city can't really be seen.
In this City Council term, unemployment has fallen from 14 percent to 4 percent, a level that is so low it can actually harm growth. We're actually in need of labor. I think this says something about our economic situation.
What does the high student population of Kaunas bring to the city?
Students bring life to a city. In large cities across Europe and the world, downtowns are often empty, and we're trying to bring students to our downtown area. There have been dormitories built here for them, and we're planning to transform the site of an empty former hotel into an international student house so that life will be directly in the middle of the city.

What are some other projects the city is working on?
Another major project is our plan to construct the sports arena on Nemunas Island. Discussions over this project are tremendous, and we've been trying to solicit residents' opinions. But the idea is: How do people know Kaunas in, say, America? By Zalgiris and [Arvydas] Sabonis... by basketball.
The project will be funded in part by the municipality, in part by the national government, and the rest by private investors. It will cost around 100 million litas, depending how you count it. There will have to be road changes, and we plan to build a modest parking lot for 500 cars. On the other side of the island there will be an entertainment area, which will cost another 40 million litas.
Do you think taxpayers will get a return on their investment in the arena?
Yes. People will be able to have a nice time at the facility, plus it will attract tourists since it will be located near the Old Town.

In what other ways do you plan to develop tourism?
First, we will restore Kaunas Castle in the center of the city. We're also working on restoration of the Old Town, which suffers because of its location on a peninsula at the confluence of the Nemunas and Neris rivers, so that there are no convenient traffic entrances into it. We're working on an underground parking structure that will have over 1,000 spaces, which is something only Vilnius has among Lithuanian cities.
Then there should be a funicular connecting Resurrection Church [see story on Page 14] to the hotels down the hill below it. Resurrection Church should hold concerts and other cultural events, which is something new in Lithuania-for a church to host cultural events.

Most visitors to Kaunas fly into Vilnius Airport. There was much discussion that Kaunas' Karmelava Airport might host a European low-cost carrier, but this seems to have fallen through.
There are currently serious discussions about the fate of Karmelava, which the government considers a national strategic object. One possibility is that it could become Lithuania's main airport. Vilnius Airport is too close to the city center for it to grow any further, but Karmelava is in an optimal location. We have spoken to representatives from all types of airlines, including Ryan Air, which is very interested in us.

What about Kaunas politics? Some of the colorful figures that previously sat in your chair gave the city the reputation of having an unstable political system.
Kaunas is an absolutely stable city-the most Lithuanian city in Lithuania, and one of Lithuania's most European-thinking cities. There was one term when we had four mayors, but that term is over now. The ultraradical elements at city hall did great harm to Kaunas' reputation, but practically speaking now there are no radicals.

Interview by Steven Paulikas