- For Starachowice, the Norwegian project turned out to be an opportunity to effectively offset the effects of the demographic decline and the migration process. This is an opportunity to attract both young people and young entrepreneurs to places such as Pałacyk, who can start and develop businesses in Starachowice. The goals we have achieved are long-term and the effectiveness of these tasks will be the harvest we will reap in the coming years. We focus on the development of the city, on modern education and participatory activities - summarized the Starachowice project implemented with support from Norwegian funds, Deputy Mayor of the City for social affairs, Marcin Gołębiowski.

The "Direction for the Future" project turned out to be an effective form of implementing the task supporting the development of Starachowice. Multi-million-dollar funding ensured the creation of important investments and the implementation of activities supporting local development. Starachowice has chosen the right direction, and cooperation with the partner city of Bergen will pay off in the coming years. Similarly to the involvement of local institutions and cooperation between non-governmental organizations and various social groups.

- Not only investments were important to us, but also all soft activities that we carried out together with our partners. At this point it is worth recalling the beginnings of our project. In February 2022, we had to face something we did not expect, namely Russia's aggression against Ukraine. Another effect of this event was the arrival of many refugees from Ukraine to Starachowice. Therefore, the project had to be slightly modified and adapted to the current situation. We planned activities related to including foreigners in the social life of our city, but life suddenly meant that our Polish language courses became more important. We managed to complete new tasks quickly and flexibly. That's what this project was. Thanks to the support and cooperation with our partners, we managed to create significant effects. For example, the creation of the "Pałacyk" Creativity Center is not only about changes in the urban space and the modernization of the monument. First of all, it was about creating a home where everyone could find a place for themselves. And today, from the perspective of even the last dozen or so days, we know that we have succeeded - emphasized Marcin Gołębiowski, deputy mayor of the city for social affairs, who was particularly involved in the implementation of this project.

Millions of support, distinction for the city

During the event in Starachowice summarizing the project "Direction for the Future - Starachowice Local Development Program", Marcin Gołębiowski recalled the most important goals of the implemented task.

- The main goal was to act in a way to develop our local communities in a sustainable way. And we implemented them both through lasting investment results and soft project activities, added Gołębiowski.

- Thanks to the involvement of local government authorities and numerous non-governmental organizations, partners, local institutions, entrepreneurs and residents themselves, with the support of the Association of Polish Cities, Starachowice was among the 29 winning cities. Our city took a high third place in this ranking. This is a huge distinction and appreciation of professionalism and a lot of work and commitment put into the development of the project - emphasizes the Mayor of Starachowice, Marek Materek.

The total amount of funding received by the Starachowice Commune for the project was PLN 19,130,446.46.

The flagship and largest activities carried out in the project were:

- construction and equipment of a new wing of the Palace together with development of the surrounding area in order to create the "Pałacyk" Creativity Center,

- modernization of Primary School No. 11 under the "Eco School" banner, i.e. a kind of Ecological Education Center for young people and residents, including preparation of documentation, renovation, purchase of equipment and development of educational courses.

- We started the project with a funding amount of over PLN 16 million. During its implementation, however, we applied to the Ministry of Funds and Regional Policy for additional financial support. Our application was approved and we were able to receive additional millions. As a result, we are closing the project with funding of over PLN 19 million. This is our next success - emphasizes Deputy Mayor Marcin Gołębiowski.

Several years of hard work

- The budget of this program was over EUR 130 million. The Local Development Program is a partnership project because, as we know, more can be done together. This program was therefore implemented by the Ministry of Funds and Regional Policy, but also the Association of Polish Cities and KS, i.e. the Norwegian Association of Local and Regional Authorities. The program consisted of three main elements, i.e. 29 project co-financing for the cities participating in the project, but also comprehensive advisory support and a network for exchange of experiences from the Association of Polish Cities and, finally, bilateral cooperation of Polish cities with their foreign partners. And an example of such excellent cooperation were the relations between Starachowice and Bergen, said Aleksandra Kułaczkowska, chief specialist at the Ministry of Funds and Regional Policy.

She also emphasized the time frame of the project implementation, pointing out that the project itself is not only about its duration.

- Today we are summarizing the 2.5-year implementation of this project, but before its implementation began, the project had to be properly and carefully prepared. This is another 2.5 years of hard preparatory work. After all, each city participating in the program had to send us two large documents. These were the Local Development Program (diagnosis of the city and the sum of investments and projects implemented in the city) and the Institutional Development Program (program for improving municipal organizations, the office and organizational units). What Starachowice managed to achieve during this time can be seen, among others, in the "Pałacyk" building. I must admit that this moment is special to me. After all, the last time I was in this place, which was five years ago, to see the building scheduled for renovation, I had to go through a hole in the fence, and the building itself was in ruins. But we managed to change this place. First the documentation, then the design, and finally the investment works and today we can see the effects of these works. They make a huge impression and today we can celebrate the effects of these activities - added Aleksandra Kułaczkowska, thanking both officials and residents of Starachowice for their commitment to the implementation of this project.

Mrimba feels like a citizen of Starachowice

Then, the representative of the Norwegian delegation from Bergen, Vincent Mrimba, spoke. The director of the Department of Culture began his thanks to the city authorities with a greeting in Polish. Said with the perfect accent, "Good morning!" was not only an expression of thanks, but also a kind of admiration for the range of changes that Starachowice has recently experienced.

- Thank you very much for another invitation to Starachowice and I am glad that I came here today with my excellent team of people from Bergen. Thank you for the wonderful reception of our delegation and the wonderful weather you provided during our stay. When we started cooperation with Starachowice, none of us knew what the final effect of this cooperation would be. However, we have been visiting your city for the last three years and we are very impressed with the development that has occurred in Starachowice. Today's visit is the typical icing on the cake. We are delighted with the final effect of this work and proud of signing the contract with you. I can assure you that the Bergen city authorities see tangible effects of the planned investment projects, but we have also learned a lot from you. I am convinced that the end of the project does not mean the severance of our friendly relations and it is in fact only the beginning of our cooperation between Bergen and Starachowice. Finally, I will only add that I personally feel like a citizen of the city of Starachowice and I am proud of this fact - said Vincent Mrimba.

Cities have thought about development

The special role of Polish-Norwegian cooperation in the implementation of the project was emphasized by Andrzej Porawski from the Association of Polish Cities. He also drew attention to the fact that the cities participating in the program planned much larger development projects, but ultimately the funding went to a larger number of cities, and therefore the projects had to be updated and their scope reduced.

- The conditions for the implementation of these projects by Polish cities were very difficult. But all cities showed great flexibility in its implementation. Moreover, cities were flexible already at the stage of creating their projects. The first applications were much more extensive, because initially the funding for program participants was to be much higher. Changes to the rules of the game meant that cities received smaller grants than those originally planned. But on the other hand, the funding went to more cities. However, Polish local governments can perfectly cope with the implementation of many tasks and various financial arrangements for the implementation of projects - emphasized Andrzej Porawski, director of the Office of the Association of Polish Cities.

- For us, the most important achievement of this project was a change in the approach in City Halls, which involved thinking about the city's development in an integrated way. Even though the projects were not large, an important part was to present us with a vision of the city's development. Additionally, cooperation with residents was an important component. So that they feel co-hosts of their city. And this is exactly what was achieved. You deserve congratulations for this, as well as for the exemplary Polish-Norwegian cooperation - added the representative of the Association of Polish Cities.

Changes in the city

Elżbieta Gralec and Marcin Gołębiowski, the Deputy Mayors of Starachowice, talked in detail about how Starachowice changed during the project.

- For us, the most important thing is people. This project was aimed at supporting and improving the quality of life of various social groups, seniors, youth, but also people with special needs and, finally, people related to education in the city - says Marcin Gołębiowski.

- Our project actually started much earlier. It can be said that we started the "Direction of the Future" while implementing the city revitalization project, i.e. the "Starachowice OdNowa" project. Then, thanks to the ministerial support, we managed to start the diagnosis and create important planning documents, which we later used in preparatory work for the next task - emphasized Elżbieta Gralec.

The Deputy Mayors of the City talked in detail about the most important projects and tasks carried out as part of the "Direction for the Future" project.

- One of the important tasks is to create an extraordinary Eco-school space on the map of our city. We have already officially opened the facility and everyone is very impressed with the functionality and layout of this building. Both parents, children and visitors. This is not the end of changes in this facility. We are ready to further expand this place. We want to modernize the entire facility and develop the school's surroundings, added Elżbieta Gralec.

Pro-ecological activities also played an important role in the implementation of the project. Noteworthy is the idea of the Green School Participatory Budget, i.e. the involvement of primary school students in the implementation of projects that are to serve them in their everyday lives. This project is not only about new ecological projects, but also about the social involvement of young people who have become aware that a lot may depend on themselves.

As part of the project, the city authorities also prepared documentation for the construction of three ecological residential buildings at Polna Street. Other ready-made documents also include those regarding the creation of eco-gardens at primary schools in Starachowice. Such gardens are to be created at every school. These spaces will allow us to implement "green classes" and ecological activities for our students.

- We want to teach young people how to run such eco-gardens responsibly and encourage them to get involved in society. Moreover, ecology is not only about mini gardens at schools. These are also community gardens, like the one run by the University of the Third Age - admits Marcin Gołębiowski, Deputy Mayor of the City for Social Affairs.

Improving the quality of life

The Starachowice project financed from Norwegian funds also includes educational courses for teachers, strengthening their competences, but also the development of documentation for the creation of a housing estate in the area of the "Old Hospital". Housing policy was an important pillar of this project. Diagnosis of the current housing condition, ideas for the city's development and attracting new residents of Starachowice are the key tasks carried out during the project implementation.

- As part of Norwegian funds, we also filled the community center in the Wzgórze housing estate with a number of activities aimed mainly at children and young people, but not only. Residents of this estate could also count on support in the field of career, legal, financial and family counseling. These activities improved the quality of life and contributed to the personal development of the public space revitalized by the city, emphasized Marcin Gołębiowski.

One of the tasks carried out as part of the project was also support for foreigners. This concerned both language courses and direct support in dealing with the most important matters of everyday life.

An important task to be implemented was also to define accessibility standards and support for people in need, including people with disabilities.

The world belongs to young people

An important place in this project is the creation of the Creativity Center in place of the historic Palace.

- It was an extremely important decision of the Mayor to create a center for young and enterprising people in this place. Initially, there were plans to hand over this building to a veterinarian. However, at the stage of consultation with residents, we received clear and distinct signals from our young people to create a place for them to meet together and a space for important conversations and implementation of ideas. We managed to make the right decision and now this place will live in a creative way, and the Youth City Council will finally have its place on the map of Starachowice - emphasized Elżbieta Gralec.

The youth from Starachowice were deeply involved in our project. It was within this framework that she could carry out projects that strengthened their activity in the urban space, such as the Civic Festival or numerous meetings as part of the so-called Inspiratorni. The Youth City Council was one of the initiators of the eco-budget and encouraged its younger colleagues to work for the development of the city.

- We always approach each project comprehensively. When implementing one project and obtaining funds for this purpose, we always try to immediately seek funding from another source. We care about the best possible financial arrangement. Own funds from the municipal budget should only be part of the implementation of each project. Everything else is a high percentage of external funds. For us, the "Direction for the Future" project was a valuable experience that will pay off in the future. We learned a lot from our partners in Norway, but Bergen also received a lot in return. Such cooperation always brings benefits - adds Elżbieta Gralec, Deputy Mayor of the City for economic affairs.

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