Schools close, but the town is open for busi­ness

The Baltic Times - - FRONT PAGE - Mara Moet­tus

In­dra Veipa, the di­rec­tor of Latvia’s Madona Youth Cen­ter, be­lieves that the big­gest prob­lem with em­i­gra­tion is that 5.7 per cent of the youth leave the re­gion each year. Yet it isn’t a ma­jor topic of con­ver­sa­tion, Veipa re­marks. “No­body talks about it, be­cause we think that it is nor­mal that ev­ery­body leaves. A lot of those who have gone away don’t think about com­ing back, so peo­ple here get used to it,” she un­der­scored.

The town of Madona has lost 11.4 per cent of its pop­u­la­tion since 2010, and the schools, busi­nesses, and govern­ment or­ga­ni­za­tions are feel­ing the ef­fects of this de­mo­graphic quandary. On Sun­days, the main square re­mains eerily empty, as many of the town’s 7,775 res­i­dents pre­fer to stay home for the week­end. Schoolchil­dren have re­turned to their houses in the sur­round­ing coun­try­side, and most busi­nesses shut their doors for the day.

This dra­matic loss of pop­u­la­tion is not unique to Madona, and sim­i­lar trends are oc­cur­ring to vary­ing de­grees across the na­tion. In the same pe­riod, the en­tirety of Latvia ex­pe­ri­enced a 7.8 per cent loss, bring­ing the to­tal pop­u­la­tion to 1,953,000.

An­drejs Ce­lapiters, the mayor of Madona, cites two rea­sons for his di­min­ish­ing con­stituency. First, high school grad­u­ates fre­quently at­tend uni­ver­si­ties in other parts of Latvia and of­ten do not re­turn. Sec­ond, Madona has a dearth of em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties, and many res­i­dents are ei­ther un­em­ployed or seek­ing higher wages else­where. “It is a bad in­flu­ence on the town,” Ce­lapiters laments. “Peo­ple are spend­ing less money in the lo­cal econ­omy, and for a town to de­velop, peo­ple need to do the op­po­site – to spend more money.” Madona’s res­i­dents are not only mov­ing abroad, he ex­plains, but also to Riga, where jobs are more read­ily avail­able and can of­fer higher wages.

The Madona Re­gion con­sists of 14 parishes and one town, in an area of 2,160 sq. km. “It’s more than twice the size of Sin­ga­pore,” Ce­lapiters re­marks jovially. Forests cover 45 per cent of the dis­trict’s ter­ri­tory and the pop­u­la­tion den­sity is only 11 peo­ple per sq. km.

Ac­cord­ing to the mu­nic­i­pal­ity, the aver­age in­come in the Madona Re­gion is 650 Eu­ros a month, which is 200 Eu­ros less than the aver­age Lat­vian salary. The un­em­ploy­ment rate is 10.2 per cent, higher than the na­tional aver­age of 8.4 per cent, as pro­vided by the Na­tional Em­ploy­ment Agency.

A ma­jor im­pact of this em­ploy­ment-driven em­i­gra­tion is the con­tin­u­ally de­creas­ing stu­dent pop­u­lace. If par­ents can­not find work, they leave Madona and take their chil­dren with them.

In­dra Veipa, the di­rec­tor of the Madona Youth Cen­ter, be­lieves that the big­gest prob­lem with em­i­gra­tion is that 5.7 per cent of the youth leave the re­gion each year. Yet it isn’t a ma­jor topic of con­ver­sa­tion, Veipa re­marks. “No­body talks about it, be­cause we think that it is nor­mal that ev­ery­body leaves. A lot of those who have gone away don’t think about com­ing back, so peo­ple here get used to it.” The Youth Cen­ter, which acts as a space for chil­dren to play and learn af­ter school hours, has con­tin­ued to flour­ish de­spite the de­creas­ing pop­u­la­tion.

Cur­rently, Madona has three schools: Sec­ondary Schools Num­ber 1 and 2, and the Madona State Gym­na­sium. How­ever, due to the de­cline in stu­dents and the pro­jected con­tin­u­a­tion of this trend, the mu­nic­i­pal­ity has made the con­tentious de­ci­sion to merge the two sec­ondary schools at the start of the 2017 school year.

Schools in the neigh­bor­ing parishes are sim­i­larly shrink­ing, and in 2015 the school in Sarkani was closed, and the school in Mar­ciena was re­duced from nine classes to six. Romāns Hača­tr­jans, the head of the Madona Mu­nic­i­pal­ity Busi­ness and Tourism De­vel­op­ment Depart­ment, ex­plains that while peo­ple who live in ru­ral ar­eas think small schools are good, they don’t make sense fi­nan­cially for the mu­nic­i­pal­ity. “In the school in Sarkani, the mu­nic­i­pal­ity paid about 1,200 Eu­ros for one stu­dent. But for ex­am­ple, in Madona schools, one stu­dent costs ap­prox­i­mately 200 Eu­ros.” Some money from the big­ger schools is given to smaller schools, fur­ther in­hibit­ing the de­vel­op­ment and qual­ity of ed­u­ca­tion.

Many of these stu­dents from the coun­try­side in­stead take buses each day to the schools in Madona. The stu­dent body at Madona School Num­ber 1, for ex­am­ple, is com­prised of 707 stu­dents in grades 1 through 12, only 60 per cent of whom are from the town it­self. 34 per cent of stu­dents come from other parts of the Madona Re­gion, and 6 per cent from other re­gions en­tirely.

Inese Strode, the cur­rent di­rec­tor of Madona Sec­ondary School Num­ber 1, has been work­ing at the school since 1991, but with the re­or­ga­ni­za­tion plan, she is un­sure what her role will be in the com­bined Madona Sec­ondary School. “I’m not happy about it, but I un­der­stand that some changes are nec­es­sary to make the schools stronger,” Strode says. She doesn’t be­lieve the pop­u­la­tion of Madona will grow, but she thinks that it has the po­ten­tial to re­main sta­ble.

Faced with con­sol­i­dat­ing schools and a rapidly di­min­ish­ing pop­u­la­tion, the town must an­swer the daunt­ing ques­tion: How can we get peo­ple to stay?

To en­cour­age pop­u­la­tion sta­bil­ity, the mu­nic­i­pal­ity has launched a se­ries of ini­tia­tives aimed at in­creas­ing busi­ness ac­tiv­i­ties and fund­ing in­no­va­tive ideas in the re­gion. One such project is called “Madona Var Labāk!” – Madona Will Im­prove – a com­pe­ti­tion that grants new busi­nesses up to 4,000 Eu­ros for their de­vel­op­ment. Since 2014, nearly 60 projects have been funded, in­clud­ing Sim­ple Plus, a stu­dent-de­signed busi­ness that makes gar­ment bags for folk dance cos­tumes, and Baltic Bows, which makes hand­crafted bow and ar­rows for archery. Hača­tr­jans ex­plains that the Depart­ment of Busi­ness and Tourism De­vel­op­ment is “fo­cused on all peo­ple who are liv­ing in Madona and who are will­ing to live in or come back to Madona and start a busi­ness.”

Each month, the Mu­nic­i­pal­ity re­ceives 2 to 4 grant pro­pos­als, al­though not all of the ideas are given fund­ing, Hača­tr­jans states. “I can say that the ac­tiv­ity is quite high, but we want the qual­ity of these ideas and their po­ten­tial to be higher.”

A small busi­ness that stands out as ex­cep­tional is Madonas Karame­les, a candy com­pany that was started in 2013 by the cou­ple Ar­nis Blaže­vičs and Linda Blaže­viča, and has re­ceived two grants from the mu­nic­i­pal­ity. While they ini­tially ran the com­pany alone, the grants have al­lowed them to hire four more em­ploy­ees and ex­pand their op­er­a­tions. They now dis­trib­ute their candy in 12 re­gions of Latvia in­clud­ing: Ce­sis, Sigulda and Riga, and run group tours of their fac­tory to show­case the pro­duc­tion and cre­ation of the candy.

Still, op­er­at­ing their busi­ness in Madona poses some chal­lenges for Madonas Karame­les, in­clud­ing lim­ited dis­tri­bu­tion and ex­pan­sion pos­si­bil­i­ties. “The prob­lem is that we are not so big, so to get sup­plies, we have to go to Riga be­cause no­body comes to Madona to de­liver,” Blaže­vičs ex­plains. Nev­er­the­less, the grants from the mu­nic­i­pal­ity have given them re­sources to ex­pand and flour­ish within the con­text of Madona.

An­other way that the govern­ment is at­tempt­ing to al­le­vi­ate the prob­lems as­so­ci­ated with un­em­ploy­ment is through projects funded by the EU. One Pro­gram, known as the Euro­pean So­cial Fund Project: Sub­si­dized Jobs for the Un­em­ployed, pays a por­tion of peo­ple’s salaries who have been un­em­ployed and ac­tively seek­ing em­ploy­ment for at least six months. This has the po­ten­tial to ben­e­fit both the com­pany and the em­ploy­ees.

Marco and Ilze Ligouri, who opened lo­cal fa­vorite, Pizze­ria Neapole in 2011, have taken ad­van­tage of this project to hire work­ers at a lower cost. For 4 or 5 years, Ligouri has found work­ers through this pro­gram and has re­ceived half of the new worker’s salary for two years. It is some­times dif­fi­cult, she ad­mits, be­cause there is te­dious pa­per­work that needs to be metic­u­lously com­pleted each month. “It’s also hard be­cause you have to change peo­ple ev­ery cou­ple years. They won’t pay for them to work more than that.” But for Ligouri, the pro­gram helps fund their pizze­ria, “We re­ally need the project some­times, be­cause rent is ex­pen­sive here, rent on the house, in­gre­di­ents, etc.”

In ad­di­tion to busi­nesses, the mu­nic­i­pal­ity is also work­ing to ex­pand op­por­tu­ni­ties in Madona for ed­u­ca­tion in the IT sec­tor. Ce­lapiters notes that “you don’t have to be in a spe­cific lo­ca­tion to work in

IT and you can work re­motely for com­pa­nies out­side of Madona.”

But de­spite these ef­forts, the pop­u­la­tion con­tin­ues to de­cline, and nearly 200 peo­ple left in 2016 alone. What will hap­pen to the town in the fu­ture?

In­evitably, the fu­ture of Madona’s pop­u­la­tion will be de­ter­mined by the ac­tion of to­day’s youth.

For some, the op­por­tu­ni­ties to pur­sue their in­ter­ests sim­ply don’t ex­ist in Madona. Ričards Gurskis, a grad­u­at­ing se­nior at Madona School Num­ber 1, plans to study air­craft en­gi­neer­ing at Riga Tech­ni­cal Univer­sity. When asked if he plans to re­turn to Madona, Gurskis rec­og­nizes that “there is noth­ing to do re­gard­ing air­craft in Madona, so I think that I will spend my life in Riga.”

Luīze Sniedze, an­other grad­u­at­ing se­nior, in­tends to study in Ger­many, but later re­turn to work in Madona’s Mu­nic­i­pal­ity. Hača­tr­jans took a sim­i­lar path, re­turn­ing to work in his cur­rent po­si­tion af­ter study­ing in Riga and work­ing for five years. He be­lieves that if em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties in­crease, young peo­ple who grew up in Madona will want to re­turn to small town life to raise a fam­ily. “It will be like a wave,” he pre­dicts. “Once one comes, more will start com­ing back.”

Hača­tr­jans also de­scribes his im­age for the fu­ture or­ga­ni­za­tion of Latvia’s pop­u­la­tion: “I be­lieve that in the fu­ture, ev­ery­thing will be lo­cated in the cen­ters. The ser­vices from the coun­try­side will be lo­cated in Madona, and some ser­vices from Madona will be lo­cated in Valmiera or Jek­abpils, or big­ger cities, and other ser­vices will only be of­fered in Riga.” But while ser­vices may be cen­tral­ized, Hača­tr­jans em­pha­sizes the im­por­tance of the coun­try­side for pro­duc­tion of ma­te­ri­als in­clud­ing lum­ber and agri­cul­ture.

Anna, the di­rec­tor of a youth cen­ter in a neigh­bor­ing town, en­cour­ages peo­ple to look at the re­al­ity of the sit­u­a­tion: “For 12 years, we teach stu­dents to be am­bi­tious, to find new op­por­tu­ni­ties, to live up to their po­ten­tial, then we blame them if they don’t come back.” Given this am­bi­tion, she notes, it isn’t sur­pris­ing that many young peo­ple stay away. “This isn’t a ques­tion of pa­tri­o­tism or loy­alty,” she re­minds us, “but a ques­tion of how strong we are, and how well we can adapt to this new fu­ture.”

An­drejs Ce­lapiters

Inese Strode

Madonas Karame­les 2

School Num­ber 2

pizze­ria Neapole

Madona Train Sta­tion

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