European Capitals of CultureΠοιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Thessaloniki '97: the regime approach by Anestis D. Mantatzis



Anestis D. Mantatzis, London School of Economics, Regional & Urban Planning MSc (United Kingdom)


1. Abstract

Adopting the Greek academics' perspective that Thessaloniki failed during the last decades to obtain an active role as an inter-Balkan and regional economic centre, this paper explores the case of Thessaloniki '97 European Capital of Culture via an urban politics theorization lens. We focus on the role of local economic and political power elites towards this effort and whether cultural mega events such as European Cultural Capitals are able to boost a growth coalition mechanism among local economic and political actors. In the next step, follows a discussion about to what extend can the existed situation in Thessaloniki be explained using conceptual tools of Urban Regime approach.


2. Promoting common cultural identity: The 3-pillar model

European Cultural Capital Initiative remained the flagship of cultural initiative in Europe since 1985 when it was first proposed by the former Greek minister of Culture Melina Merkouri. It aims on the interaction between Europeans towards a common shared identity that until then had no cultural content but was only heavily relied on economic values and preserving peace via the common trade area (Palonen E. 2010). Although this common identity could be easily described via the contribution of each host city in the development of common European cultural mainstreams and the collaboration of artists among different cities this notion is in fact perceived differently by each city and is open to many interpretations regarding the key missions and the objectives.1 Similarly, ECOC notion can be perceived differently among different tiers of governance. For EU, it provides a cheap tool of marketing creating a sense of shared space and polycentric capital, whereas for each national government it provides a tool for renewal of urban canters and economic boosterism, implicitly via culture and investment. On the other hand, a unique chance is provided to regions to escape from national barriers enhancing collaboration with other regions either spatially approximate or not whereas, for local authorities provides initiatives for urban regeneration and rebuilding (Palonen E. 2010). Within the context of these different interpretations, the ECOC generic logic can be described as a three-pillar process. More notably, the Economic dimension, highlights the economic development of the city through culture targeting on the city as a touristic destination (cultural tourism initiatives), and as a platform for new capital investments improving the image of the city (city marketing initiatives). This logic can be summarized in the diagram below:


Diagram 1 - ECOC Intervention Logic

Source: ECOTEC (2009)

Clearly, ECOC intervention logic attempts to respond to a rather broad objective of promoting the "idea of Europe" through the promotion of cultural activities attempting simultaneously to achieve economic benefits for the host cities. In fact, European dimension is typically incorporated through the inclusion of cultural activities whose, content and key-deliverables are European citizens in essence. However, the adoption of a third Economic dimension over the years reflects the broader trends of cultural policy to put culture under the service of non-cultural objectives (ECOTEC 2009), which consist a point of severe criticism around ECOC initiative. As a result, both European and Cultural dimensions are often overshowded by political and economic interests and agendas and their potential as tools to promote European integration and cooperation is not fully realized.


3. ECOC initiative as a cultural mega-event

Roche (2000) defines mega-events as "large scale cultural events (including commercial and sport events) which have a dramatic character, mass popular appeal and international significance". The main characteristics of such events are the significant short and long term consequences for the host city, considerable media coverage and distinctivity. Such examples are, FIFA World Cup, Eurovision Song Contest, Olympic Games etc. Also as Burbank et al (2001) state, such events contribute to short term tourism revenues and national/international recognition putting the city on the world stage on increasing investment competition.

Indeed, such characteristics are also visible in the three pillar ECoC intervention logic. Gains from tourist inflows and city image promotion to attract capital investments are the basic operational objectives of the economic dimension behind ECoCs which seems to be the main linkage that allows us to label ECoC cultural event as a mega event. Other common elements are the "one time" assignment for each host city, the important media coverage as well as the common "spirit" that such events are usually conceptually characterized from (e.g. Olympic spirit, fair play, common European cultural heritage etc).


4. Mega-events as a platform for economic development

European cities are increasingly positioning themselvesin a European rather than national context both in terms of attracting capital investments and economic interdependence and culture is considered to be one of the few and most valuable resources for policy makers to create competitive advantages for their countries, regions or cities (Richards 1996b). In this context of inter-urban/regional competition, Andranovich et al (2001) support the view that a well established mega-event strategy is able to stimulate local economic growth and such high-profile events can serve as stimulus to local economic development. Although his argument is primarily based on Olympic Games case studies of Atlanta and Salt Lake City, it can be generalized in the wider context of cultural mega-events and ECOC in particular as it was shown in the previous section. According to their perspective, the main reason that cities are embracing such a mega-event strategy is the potential opportunities to gain national, regional, or even international advantages from the bidding and the hosting exposure during the event as well as to boom their tourism revenues and capital investment inflows. Such a consumption-based development strategy uses hallmark mega events as "image builders" and is strongly linked to the wider strategy of place marketing and it's main implication of "place commoditization" (Hall 1989a).

In case of ECOC, diagram 3 provides the main analytical framework of such economic benefit transfers as well as it's main deliverables. O


Diagram 2 - An analytical framework for ECOC economic benefits

Source: Palmer R. et al (2004)

On the other side, various arguments state that such mega-event preparation and investments exacerbate socio-spatial polarization, significantly decrease affordable housing stocks, and often contribute on poor's displacement and disruption of the social fabric. Similar arguments can also be found in the literature debates around gentrification, geographically targeted regeneration policies and community cohesion. Although it is possible such negative spillovers to be quite significant in case of Olympic Games or other cultural mega-events, in case of ECOC such implications might be less detrimental as wide spatial urban reforms are often not necessary.


5. Long-term vision and strategic planning for development

International urban festivals are recognized among academics to provide the necessary network capacity building in terms of persuading partners to work together on something unambiguously of mutual benefit. This necessity to integrate mega-events into a broad development planning is highlighted among others by Roche (2000) who argue that strategic planning is able to provide a sense of ownership among stakeholders in the selected objectives. A shared vision of the local area is fundamental to give a long-perspective on the returns from hosting a mega event, however it is important to realize that full impacts can only be assessed after a considerable time period later.

However in his earlier contribution (Roche 1994) distinguishes the "political approach" from the traditional "planning approach" in order to reveal the role of urban power holders in tourism and event production. Decisions relevant to the hosting and the nature of hallmark events often grow out of political processes and different values of actors (e.g. individual entrepreneurs, interest groups, organizations) and through a constant struggle of power. According to this perspective, such prestigious projects are in their vast majority largely influenced by the will and power of urban political leadership as well as powerful elite groups and stakeholders (business or cultural elites).


6. Theorizing urban power: the urban regime approach

Regime approach was initially developed as a response to pluralist theories of urban politics within the debate around "elitist" and "pluralist" approaches of urban power. Unlike economic development coalitions that are in the heart of "elitists" argument, regime approach allows plurality of interests. Based on the motto by Jim Folsom " nothing just happens, everything is arranged", Stone (1989) defines urban regimes as informal but stable groups with privileged access to institutional resources and significant impact on the formulation of urban policy agenda. According to this, regimes are not mean to be a coherent organization but an informal group of influential actors who derive power from different resources and share policy objectives for city's economic development. An important contribution by Davies (2003) summarizes the criteria about the existence of regime structures arguing that such a coalition includes local public & private sector "elites" and cooperation via informal networks based on trust shared goals and resources.

This approach dominated theorism of urban power in US context since 1980's. As Newman & Thornley (2005) suggest, the main appeal of such an approach lays on the grounds that it emphasizes on the process of setting the city's agenda matching concerns about the importance of strategic planning and long term vision as we argued in previous section. Indeed, the relative advantage of this approach is that it focuses on alliances between actors for "high priority city problems" explaining "why some problems rather than others receive priority treatment". In fact, regime approach provides a more synthetic approach that homogenous "pluralist/elitist" power structures focusing on the process of governance and the process of "who is that governs" and not "who controls the resources" (Stone 2005) and why "building bridges" with other interests to achieve common objectives (Harding 1997).

However, despite it's appeal and the relative advantages compared to the traditional conceptions of urban power, it does not come without it's criticism especially around it's applicability outside US political context. Davies (2003) argue that such a theoretical transfer is not valid due to important economic constraints and differences between European and US political contexts concerning the state involvement on business-led urban development, although according to Kantor & Savitch (2005), contextual differences are manageable incorporating aggregate institutional factors into general attributes (e.g. steering, trust) transforming them into comparable outputs. Related to this, Dowding et all (1999) point out that regime approach should be better described as a concept or model rather than a theory itself, as it is unable to explain such variations across different countries. In line with this argument we rather avoid in the present paper to label regime approach as a theory using alternative descriptions.


7. Research conceptual pathway

Starting from the generic intervention logic behind ECOC institution we highlighted how "3rd dimension" dominated upon the other European and Cultural dimensions and how economic development goals are often the key drivers behind hosting cultural mega-events such as ECOCs. Similarly, we realized the significance of the long-term vision and strategic planning for the city in order to successfully host such cultural mega-evens, but most important, in order to realize the long-term economic benefits that such a mega-event is able to provide. Given the premise that a long term vision and strategic plan for economic development can potentially act as a mechanism in order to bring together local economic and political "elites" sharing this common vision. In line with this argument, our primary purpose in the present paper is to examine whether such a process took place within the context of Thessaloniki '97 European Capital of Culture answering the following question (1st research question):

Did Thessaloniki '97 European Capital of Culture mega-event formulate "elite" coalitions for economic development between powerful political and economical local players ?

A step further, considering the significance of urban politics and urban power interrelations we adopted this regime approach in order to help us better understand the political processes around such events, trying to examine whether urban regime structures were formed within the context of Thessaloniki '97 European Capital of Culture, while also recognizing that the "3rd dimension" can become the common shared goal within urban regime structures. In order to respond to this issue, we will use the criteria summarized by Davies (2003) trying to answer in the following question (2nd research question):

Can these "elite" coalitions be explained within the urban regime conceptual framework ?


Diagram 3- Research conceptual pathway


Table 1 - Tested regime criteria according to Davies (2003)

To respond on these questions, the analyzed interview data were extracted from semi-structured in-depth interviews based on set questions and questions formulated separately for each interviewee considering the status, the profile, and the extend of involvement during the organization of Thessaloniki '97 European Capital of culture. Different combinations of questions seek to provide an answer to each attribute tested as a response to our initial research questions (see table 1). Finally considering the problems of urban regime approach in different urban contexts, there was an effort to use Davies (2003) criteria.


8. Thessaloniki '97 European Capital of Culture as a mechanism for establishing local "elite" coalitions.

In order to respond to our first research question it is necessary to examine whether, during the ECOC preparation, was really existed an active and catholic participation of the most important local actors and to what extent did they share a local economic development vision for the city. In fact, there was a rather "formalistic" consultation process, which has been followed during the preparation and the hosting year under the command of the artistic directors. As it is clearly stated:

"For many years various sessions took place where public and private vehicles were invited to submit their proposals. Also, Thessaloniki is characterized by it's communities (...). These "voices" were considered during the formulation of the cultural and technical programme. However it is rational that not all of them could actively participate, due to it's number and size.(...) The National Tourism Organization, had the capacity to effectively represent the touristic perspective on behalf of the state, but also various other private sector lobbies had their own "voice" during the executive board sessions" [Interview material].

However, the way this consultation process was implemented resulted eventually in a great number of proposals from all the different participating institutions and lobbies, so that there are doubts as to the extent that these could be synthesized in a coherent plan with a clear orientation. In fact:

"Even during the formulation process of these proposals into specific policy areas, two action dimensions where eventually created: the "technical action plan" and the "cultural action plan". However, despite their own specific objectives, they were never synthesized in an overall coherent objective complex." [Interview material].

Possibly, this malfunction can be given attributed to the fact that a coherent framework around the objectives and the orientation of the hosted ECOC event, as well as a concrete development plan for the city were absent. Indeed, there is a consensus in our interview material in line with Greek literature of a diffused but at the same time blurred vision around the economic and international role of the city. Labrinanidis (2001, 2008) argues that for decades this "vision" of Thessaloniki as an Interbalkan economic centre remained a pure rhetoric. while the city was seeking to find a new role as a Balkan southern gateway. Under this rhetoric the chance of hosting the 1997 European Capital of Culture was perceived as a unique opportunity to attract investments promoting city's new image, regenerate the urban area and resolve long-standing issues for the city recognizing the wider role that culture and cultural tourism could play towards that effort. Indeed:

" People considered that now had the chance to resolve all the long-standing problems of the city accumulated for decades (...) . At that time a climate of common aspirations was created and at the same time of personal aspirations. It is rationale for the local elite to attempt to bring it's own perspectives on the top of the agenda especially in case of such a large scale cultural event. However it is important to recognize that this remains a cultural event, and it was impossible for the technical and cultural programme to respond in all of these aspirations." [Interview material]

As it is also stated in line with the previous argument:

"The main objective at that time was to create all the necessary infrastructure for the city to be able to respond successfully in it's burden of being a Cultural capital for Europe in 1997. Of course this had serious implications on the long-term sustainability of this attempt as a whole after 1997". [Interview material]

Having highlighted the importance of the long-term strategic planning in order to achieve developmental benefits, it comes clearly that this consisted the main weakness of the wider attempt of hosting the ECOC event in Thessaloniki, not so much in terms of organizing the festival itself but in order to exploit all the potential of such an event to achieve sustainable economic benefits after 1997(Lambrianidis 2001, Maslias 1998 often label it as a "missed opportunity"). And given the aspirations described above, such a concrete development strategy could become a fundamental tie among all these different interests of the actors involved during the ECOC preparation and hosting . It is reasonable to argue that indeed, there was a vision behind every effort of those involved with the ECOC hosting :

"There is no doubt that among the local elite and the city's institutions (political, public, entrepreneurial etc) it was a top priority to set the city at the core of international interest and mark it's presence. Obviously it was unlikely for an "unknown" city to attract investments. I can say that this objective was achieved at that time". [Interview material].

However, regardless of the extent that this was achieved or not, it is a fact that the lack of such a concrete development orientation for the city in general was a real obstacle in this effort. And undoubtedly beyond the rhetoric, it affected the orientation of the ECOC hosting itself, at least in terms of the so called "3rd dimension" deliverables. In particular:

"Culture, is an exported "product" for Greece, capable to bring money and to create jobs. We should not see culture theoretically, but also as a mechanism to create wealth and, under this perspective, ECoC institution should combine both cultural heritage and economic efficiency and this was not seriously considered in the case of Thessaloniki (...). From the beginning of the preparation a serious strategic economic planning was absent (...). It was a big chance, but the returns of "value for money" were insignificant". [ Interview material].


9. Towards an Urban Regime?

The whole attempt of hosting the ECOC event resulted in the formulation of elite coalitions and collaboration networks at the initial stages of the preparation years, although the lack of a concrete planning was a serious obstacle in this process. However, to what extent do these networks form an urban regime in the case of Thessaloniki ? Assessing the regime criteria in table 1 there is a consensus in our extracted interview data (in line with the Palmer R. et al. 2004 report) that indicates a wider mistrust climate among many actors involved in this attempt. In particular :

"Indeed, numerous conflicts existed during the executive board sessions as well as between local municipal authorities and ministry representatives that often led to quits of artist directors and other board members that harmed the overall attempt in general. Everyone considered that he should secure resources for his own part of the play" [Interview material].

What is implied by the above words is that the lack of a clear orientation and strategy plan, as we argued above, had it's own crucial role for such a mistrust. Most of our data agree on:

"Such a mistrust can be attributed to the lack of a concrete development plan for the city in general and clear orientation and objectives during ECOC preparation in particular that left space for pressures and interests of some actors involved. (...) Trust must be built. If such a plan is absent, then there is nowhere that trust can be built on. My belief is that the whole attempt from Thessaloniki was characterized by such a mistrust that had serious implications for the city later." [Interview material].

Some information extracted from our interview material provide a rather interesting linkage between trust and private sponsorships.

" Such a limited sponsorship can also be attributed to the lack of trust. External private sponsors did not anticipate that something extraordinary will occur, but they rather perceived the whole effort as a state supported attempt only". [Interview material]

Regardless of whether such a viewpoint had really dominated or not, it is a fact that the state funding support was the greatest from all other ECOC until then and later as well. As it is clearly stated:

"In contrast to many Capitals of Culture, Thessaloniki raised sponsorships from just two companies. Both were for specific, high level performances (Borisnikov & Rostropovich) and seem to have little connection with the Thessaloniki '97 project" [Palmer R. et al 2004].

Undoubtedly, data show that the huge state support can be mainly considered as responsible for the very low private funding of Thessaloniki '97 ECOC. In fact:

"Since government managed to allocate such an amount of funds for the hosting of Thessaloniki ECOC, sponsorships never became a central and insisting objective (...). They gave the impression that they didn't need these money since Athens provided over 60 million Euros". [Interview material]



Operating income


 1. Public

National Government

EU (general support)




 2. Private




 3. Other

Ticket sales



 Total operating income



Table 2 -Total operational budget by source of funding (1994-1998)

Source: Palmer R. et al. (2004)

These data provided by Palmer R. et al.(2004) evaluation report and the interview material indicate that private funding was insignificant and that the whole event was entirely relied on state support. Although this seems to be in line with a basic premise of regime approach, that actors involved (and the state is included in this case) share to a great extent financial resources, however this interdependence seems very one-sided towards formal government and not distributed among other local and private actors as it is highlighted in the regime literature. Considering this one-sided funding reliance and the state presence on the executive board , it could be rational to argue that central government was able to influence any decisions around the '97 ECOC. However the overall picture is not very clear and depends on the interviewee's perspective of involvement. For example from an entrepreneurial perspective :

"What really dominated was the element of central programming far from the people and the local actors involved. (...) In terms of capital infrastructure, minister's influence was catalytic, whereas in the artistic programme power distribution was more balanced. My personal feeling now and then is that politicians did not share the same long-term commitment for economic development but served rather short-term political interests". [Interview material].

On the other hand, this influence upon technical infrastructure decisions and the presence on the executive board was not always criticized negatively:

"Athens was not overrepresented in the executive board. If the presence of ministers means influence of central government this is wrong. Central government tried to upgrade the whole attempt internationally beyond local range only. Political responsibility from government authorities was beneficial for the whole programming and the ministers’ presence and support brought money to this effort." [Interview material]

Finally, regarding the long-term sustainability of the elite coalitions and networks created during the whole attempt, generally there is a consensus that the main benefit for the city remains the huge cultural infrastructure and urban renewal projects during the city's preparation to become a Cultural Capital. As it is mentioned:

"Undoubtedly I consider that regarding the cultural infrastructure Thessaloniki '97 ECOC was successful. (...) However, more could have been done. What is vital for me is that there was no follow up. Like you make an investment today for two years ! (...) The whole attempt should have a continuity and connection with other ECOC cities at European level (roundtables, conferencing etc. ). (...) For me, every ECOC should be prepared long time before the hosting year including , beyond the cultural programme, a wider city development plan for ten years ahead." [interview material].

Supporting this view, figures below show that there was not any long term increase in the tourist inflows which are the main drivers for wider economic benefits. In fact, in case of Thessaloniki '97 ECOC cultural tourism proved unable to break the seasonality of the tourist inflows in general and create a permanent inflows increase.




Diagram 4-Tourist arrivals (1994-2000) & overnight stays (1996-1998)

Source: Palmer R. et al (2004) & National Tourism Organization data

As we pointed out, lack of wider strategy after 1997 identified as the main reason that prevented many of these coalitions and networks to sustain themselves for a long time after 1997, especially those that were not exclusively cultural but included entrepreneurial actors. However, in terms of cultural education, the city benefited thereafter :

" (...) I strongly believe that the cultural level of the city's inhabitants was upgraded and for me this is a great heritage. People now have higher demands from city authorities in terms of culture. (...) The experience gained is visible from the hosted events so far and there are many events that are routed back in the '97 ECOC. " [Interview material]


10. Conclusion

The assignment of Thessaloniki as a Cultural Capital of Europe in 1997 was perceived as a great opportunity from local political and economic elite, and had the capacity to create elite coalitions that shared the vision of the city's economic development and it's Interbalkan role. However, beyond that blurred vision, a concrete strategic development plan for the city in general was absent and this prevented the city to take advantage of all the potential wider economic benefits concerning "3rd dimension" deliverables in the long run. Although a vision can initially motivate local elites to participate and collaborate towards a common objective, such a long-term strategy is necessary to preserve these ties and elite networks in the long run in order to affect economic deliverables. A serious implication of this argument is that "Political approach" and traditional "Planning approach" are in fact interrelated. Political factors are an important piece of the real world, however strategic planning is crucial for the successful organization of an ECOC mega event and long-term economic returns.

Also, evidence are not enough to support an urban regime type of networks around Thessaloniki '97 European Cultural Capital mega event. Despite the participation of the local elite and the existing vision around the whole attempt of hosting the ECOC for Thessaloniki, there were serious mistrust problems resulting from the lack of a concrete strategy during the preparation years and for the city in general. Also, the clearly one-sided financial resource interdependence from the formal government does not indicate any resource interaction between other involved actors as well (e.g. the absence of private sponsorships on behalf of the entrepreneurial world) and thus it is unclear to what extent this allowed independency in the decisions taken from local actors involved around ECOC preparation. Finally, beyond the long-standing discussion around the overall impact of ECOC hosting in the city, it seems that this lack of wider development planning for the city and during the ECOC preparation affected the sustainability of these type of networks and collaborations mainly involving entrepreneurial actors after 1997.


Literature Cited

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Λαμπριανίδης, Λ.(2008). Η πορεία ανάπτυξης της πόλης από τη δεκαετία του ‘80: γιατί δεν αξιοποιήθηκαν αποτελεσματικά οι ευκαιρίες, στο Καυκαλάς, Γ., Λαμπριανίδης, Λ. και Παπαμίχος, Ν. (επιμ.). Η Θεσσαλονίκη στο μεταίχμιο: Η Πόλη από την σκοπιά των Αλλαγών. Αθήνα, Κριτική, σελ. 295-360

1See Deffner A. & Labrianidis L. (2000) for a comparative analysis of the various strategies and interpretations adopted by different host cities regarding impacts on economy, culture and urban renewal.

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