Schools close, but the town is open for business
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.”
Madonas Karameles 2
School Number 2
Madona Train Station