Jan Vondrouš, * 1953, Mayor of Český Krumlov from 1990 to 1998. He moved to Český Krumlov in 1983 and lives near the town center.
I wasn’t born in Český Krumlov, but there aren’t too many people my age and older who were born here. They’re mostly to the south; this was a German town. I come from Blatná and I went to high school in Strakonice. I came here in 1983 because of work. I worked in agriculture, because I am an agricultural engineer, which almost everyone is in the South Bohemian Region because of the Faculty of Agriculture in České Budějovice. So those who were too lazy like me to study far away are farmers. Or teachers, because right next door was the Pedagogical Faculty. A pretty good connection … studying with teachers, mostly women … uh oh! I took the state exam in 1977, so I don’t remember much anymore.
I moved around the area, eventually I came here – and outside my field, because I didn’t enjoy farming anymore. And there was good fortune in my misfortune. I went to work in the bank – it was the Czechoslovak State Bank then. Under the communists there was only one bank for everything – which is to say, it was good for nothing and no good. It had a department tasked with supervising the financing of agricultural enterprises. Here it was Agrokombinat Šumava. I became an economic partner at the enterprise and moved to Český Krumlov.
I have never been in any party, much less the communist party and I was more of a critic and a challenger than a full-fledged dissident. At that time, as things were erupting everywhere in Europe, we thought to ourselves it has to happen here at some point, too. But it wouldn’t happen … And from the 1980s on we were angry and disgusted, so at least I got information through friends. I had a subscription to the Lidové noviny newspaper and I was constantly critical. When the turning point came in ‘89, I happened to be in Prague on November 17 and 18! Like every good yokel who’s not from Prague, I went to have a look at Wenceslas Square. I stepped off the tram right into the thick of things, people gathered in the square, and the cops chasing them, so I also fled before a group of white helmets with billy clubs
HOW I BECAME MAYOR
I came back to Krumlov full of impressions and also quite incensed because nobody had told me about November 17! God knows when thing first started to appear on TV. Things came to a boil in Krumlov, the Civic Forum was established and I joined it. Later, those of us who worked at the bank were given assignments. An economic group of sorts was created for us.
And at that same time, the search for a mayor began. Believe it or not, a Mr. Arnošt Bednář used to go to the Civic Forum. And this Mr. Bednář, he was an inventor, he invented a scythe-rake, and so on, but lo and behold! He invented a card computer! There used to be no computers, we had one that occupied an entire floor. But Mr. Bednář had a peculiar system, different perforated cards, each with a concrete problem on it. When he wanted to know something he ran a needle through the cards, and when he pulled it out, the cards on which a given problem was described or resolved remained on the needle. And that was how he figured out who would be a suitable mayor. He poked his stack of cards, people got eliminated and gradually the criteria narrowed … And after the final round the machine had drawn me.
When people asked me how I became mayor, I’d say, it’s very simple, I came out in Bednář’s cards. In the Civic Forum, everyone knew that’s how it happened. It was a revolutionary period, at the beginning of the “co-optation.” Take how the first federal assembly was formed, for example: people were co-opted from various parties. The first democratic elections took place sometime in June 1990 and the local ones took place in the fall of that year. In the course of 1990, I was chosen by Arnošt’s cards and then I was approved by the Civic Forum. A candidate had been nominated and things were taking the course they do in elections, but then the gentleman initiated the impetus. I could have said no. I had a relatively good job, but on the other hand I couldn’t say no. Because if you’ve criticize the system the whole time, and you’re opposed to it, saying “I’m not getting mixed up in that” would mean you’d have to keep your mouth shut for the rest of your life.
When I took office, we changed a lot of things. What was essential? I’d say the fact that we knew how to handle property. First state, then municipal, and then a certain form of privatization. We didn’t just sit there, wide-eyed, waiting to see what the state would portion out to us – and that was essential. The center was in the hands of the OPBH (Okresní podnik bytového hospodářství [Czech: Regional Housing Enterprise]), which was responsible for the administration of apartments and furnace rooms. So even though the houses in the center were state-owned, they were administered not by the state but the region, and the people inside the OPBH started selling it all. And I just watched (mainly at the beginning) as the houses began to disappear from the OPBH property list at outrageous prices – twenty or thirty thousand crowns, for example. I said we had to do something fast, or else the cronies would divvy it all up among themselves – goodness knows what would have happened in the end. I knew it wouldn’t be good, so along with the regional administration, which back then included Mr. Svoboda and František Mikeš – who conducted himself quite civic-mindedly, kudos to him for that – together we created something that had no precedent in the country at the time. In 1991, the whole of the OPBH went into liquidation and as a result it was possible to apply for the properties as a town and get them free of charge. Which we did. In that way, the state handed it all – ruins, everything devastated, in an atrocious state (anyone who knew Krumlov in the ‘90s, knows that the town was 90% wreckage) – over to us for free.
As a result, one thing changed. We were sitting in the town hall, holding the reins, and doing something meaningful at that point was up to us. We wanted to regulate a bit, wrangle and get involved in the development of the town – and that meant culture and tourism, too. I said we wanted a cultural sort of tourism, for people to come here for extended stays, drawn by culture. They can be drawn by sports or business, sure, but we can have dad go to the golf course and mom got to a gallery for half the day or a festival, and in the evening they can go to a concert together. That was something like our initial vision of the town’s development. I think we were pretty successful at the beginning, but it was hard to keep it up.
We wanted cultural tourism, so we had to put together a program. We have singled out a set of supra-regional, European and global phenomena that it would be good to support. Then came the Egon Schiele Art Center. I remember the late afternoon meeting at which they told me about Egon Schiele and their proposal. They said, “We have two variants, it’ll either be in a tunnel at the station or it’ll be in the town, where it makes sense. The bond with his mother, the studio, his stay, the town council driving him out in a way – it would be good the town welcomed him this time. A closed circle.” And I saw it. Suddenly I saw the light: it was exactly what we were trying to do. It crossed the national border and aimed outward.
We shook hands on it and said, let’s do it. But I’ll tell you, for maybe a year or so I got an awful lot of flak. How I could I have dared! Even from people who would later go there to put on airs – And here we have the Egon Schiele Center, isn’t it a sight? – And yet they would have had me removed from office because they thought it took place outside the system, even though it was all legal, through the development fund. Nevertheless, it’s all done with, and the result is something the town can be immensely proud of.
WE GOT INTO UNESCO
UNESCO wasn’t very well known here, but some people did know about it and came up with the idea that Krumlov probably ought to be a part of it. And among them was Naděžda Kalousová, a journalist who worked for the Journalists Syndicate and founded the Foundation for Bohemia and so on. She showed up in my office once and we agreed I’d go to Prague, where she’d take me around to see the right people. The times were wild, revolutionary, no one came by himself and said, “You belong on the list!” Naděžda Kalousová and I went visited some offices in Prague. It was 1990, the ministries were filled with old officials, so if someone threw you out of a window like Masaryk, you wouldn’t be surprised. The Foreign Office was in the Tuscan Palace, where an official in charge of heritage sites sat in a dark room somewhere off one of the many dark corridors. He told us what we needed to do first, then second, then third … and we got started.
They came here from UNESCO, and their official didn’t like the fact that we were about to privatize the inner buildings. To this day UNESCO has a relatively negative relationship with privatization, because in Spain, for example, you can’t privatize cultural heritage – and that’s what he argued to me. But in Spain, heritage sites are on the whole private, and if they’re not, they’re certainly not going to privatize them. I told him there are x heritage sites in Spain, while here we have the opposite situation: the state has everything. We’ve prepared a privatization plan, so let’s just give it a try. I had to translate the privatization decree, send it to them and in the end they said yes, that would work. It was Municipal Decree No. 1, real thick, the rules there were clearly laid out and they were followed. I can’t imagine what would have happened if those rules hadn’t been there, because thanks to them the threat posed by corruption was minimal. I insist that it happened completely without corruption, no bribes, and 200 buildings were involved – I can’t imagine that happening at present.
Personally, I can’t say that I noticed any restrictive rules during the time I served following our entry into UNESCO. We didn’t get a manual – there was none. The old Cultural Heritage Institute was still around, the conservation people did good work under communism, they kept to a certain line, and they did so afterwards, too. Český Krumlov, along with Prague and Telč, found itself on the map of the world, not Czechoslovakia, but the world! Until then, no one knew about us. Even today, you cross the Austrian border and drive 50 km and half the people won’t know where Český Krumlov is. At first, I didn’t even notice perceiving tourism as some sort of predicament. At that time there were a few people who guessed what Krumlov might look like in the future, but not many. Most people do not see too far ahead, there aren’t too many visionaries, and after the revolution they were even fewer, because they did not know anything outside of Krumlov, they had no experience. Apart from the Prognostic Institute, the Bolsheviks had a group that attracted some of the smartest among us and they had the task of informing people where they were headed. And I met one of them and sought his advice every once in a while. I think you have to get information from all sides, and plus he had information from abroad, unlike us. He knew where real estate prices and the numbers of tourists were headed. He told me, “In 25 years, you’re going to have so many tourists here you won’t be able to move around.” But he didn’t talk about the depopulation of the center.
Then I met a bunch of pseudo-visionaries who went to Germany and brought back all the mayors on the Krumlov-Freystadt route, and they were men who said nothing new. They didn’t bring any benchmarks – they were elsewhere. I preferred to confirm all the information I got myself in the field. And right then a bag burst and a lot of different foundations came tumbling out. Charles University gathered all the town politicians, put us on a bus and took us to the University of Amsterdam. I ended up spending almost a month there. Although the system is different in the Netherlands, towns operate according to similar principles. I learned quite a lot. Another experience came a year later when I flew across the ocean to Toronto, where what’s happening now in Krumlov was getting closer. They took us around, showing us all their projects. There was a cultural project, for example, called Theater House, a huge building, two theaters inside it, plus a parking lot, shops. And all that commerce fed into the non-commercial theater. And when you see with your own eyes that there are places where that works, you say, “It has to work here, too!”
FROM FIVE AM TO TEN PM
The town was in a desolate state. In 8 years, with the help of various privatizing and town activities and subsidies, we managed to get things to a state comparable to that in other European towns. But it meant working from five in the morning to ten in the evening. My children did not see me at home much then. The first election period was pretty good, no one really knew what they were doing, in the second election period a clever people arrived who thought they could do better … Maybe they could have done better, I don’t know, but to a certain extent they made my job as mayor unpleasant. So I said, I’m not going to suffer here anymore, I’m tired, and if you think you’re going to do better then go ahead. I left voluntarily.
Meanwhile, in 1998, when I left, there were changes in national politics. Miloš Zeman became prime minister and the Social Democrats occupied ministries with its people. It was after the “Sarajevo assassination attempt” crisis. One government had ended and for half a year there was a caretaker government led by Prime Minister Tošovský. In February, I got an offer to go to the Ministry of Culture, where I spent half a year as Martin Stropnický’s deputy minister after the caretaker government.
TOWARDS TOURISM AND DEPOPULATION OF THE TOWN CENTER
Go have a look at Hallstatt. They are totally desperate at the way they’re being completely trampled. It is a town of 700 inhabitants, it’s practically just one street and has 1,200,000 visitors a year. They’re the closest example of how badly things can go. You have to be constantly on top of things, you cant just do something, and then sit down, crank a handle for another ten years and expect things to work. Nonsense. Somebody has to be pulling things forward all the time.
In the 1990s we had a series of distinguished guests here. We had the Danish queen and King often, the Swedish King, Prince Charles was here, Madeleine Albright, Václav Havel, Meryl Streep – you can’t imagine all the people who visited. In the 2000s, several things happened that significantly affected the flow of tourists, because their effects were often quite intense and immediate. After September 11, 2001, Americans disappeared for three years, a year later there were floods, that was another problem. Then that volcano erupted. Then the avian flu. Then there was the crisis in 2008. When you add it all up, you find that tourism experienced some pretty objective wallops. The hotels, which depended on it, were panicked. Then they started bringing Taiwanese tour groups, accommodating them at half the official price. Previously, the most we got were some very elegant Japanese people. Well, that’s how it started. There are a lot of people in Taiwan, 70 million, 2,200,000,000 in China, and now Indians have appeared, there are also a billion of them. The travel agencies create one, two, three, four packages, and suddenly you have a thousand Chinese people coming a day. And then what you get something you don’t see in winter, but in the summer it’s a nightmare – you can’t move around at all. And I’d like to know how many of them walk into a gallery … But we did not things to turn out this way. Come from China, OK, but come and spend some quality time here. Not three hours, but three days, or at least buy an admission to a gallery, go have lunch somewhere.
At that time, other towns often turned to me for advice. Znojmo, Mikulov. In Znojmo, they managed to set up a development fund, but it was too late and there were already business lobbyists who thwarted their plans. But in Mikulov it almost worked. I also used to go to Hluboká and Lipno. I wanted towns to work together. I also traveled abroad, where there the depopulation of town centers was beginning or had been underway for a long time. Thanks to Prince Charles’ foundation, the Prince of Wales International Business Leaders Forum, I went to Liverpool to have a look and depopulation of the center there was a textbook case. Krumlov is nothing in comparison. There, the center decamped in a massive way, there were umpteen buildings with no people in them because property prices had gone up, real estate, rents … And it got to a point where no one was able to finance it. And all at once tenants started leaving, which the oligarchs couldn’t care less about, and suddenly Liverpool was full of buildings with nobody in them. They dealt with the issue by establishing something like development funds, implemented a scheme for buying property, and even the royal family intervened. Foundation funds were earmarked and a plan was devised to deal with the issue. It’s problem afflicting not just Liverpool, but the whole world.
ČESKÝ KRUMLOV TODAY AND IN TWENTY YEARS
Let me tell you about a heretical idea regarding the town’s strategic plan. It’s almost the same as the one I put together in the 1990s. There aren’t too many new ideas to come up with. I started planning strategically here in about 1994, a pioneering time, no one was too interested in the plan. Everyone had five-year and two-year plans in their heads. Just as Mrs. Jirmusová Lazarowitz came to me with Schiele in 1992 or 1993, a Santa Fe professor named Lorenz Moss showed up one day and said to me, “I’m a Strategic Planning Professor, and I’ve just put together plans for Shell and for some factories and for the US Army, and I think it’s something that should work for towns, too. And I’ll draw up a strategic plan for you, just give me a million, that’s peanuts, after all, and we’ll start planning strategically.” And I said, “Good idea, but not for a million.” And we said nice to meet you, goodbye, and that was that. A year later he showed up again at the same time and said, “I’m here again, and I don’t even want that million, just half will be enough.” And I say, “Look, Lorenz, I don’t have half a million for strategic planning, everyone would kill me.” He left, came back the third year and said, “I don’t want anything, I found a foundation in New York and it’s paying me to be here for three years. Let’s do some strategic planning.” And we did.
And the new plan is similar. I’m not saying it’s bad, but the process has been underway since about that time. My way was participatory, too, you can’t do it any other way, otherwise it would be nothing but an architect’s opinion.
The advice I’d give to the town today is pretty hard, but I would definitely raise prices. Today you can’t regulate any other way. You can’t put up a “Don’t Come Here” sign, but you can make it more expensive for buses to come and park. When buses arrive in Salzburg, they get 200-300 euros from them for parking. Just like that, and everyone’s gotten used to it. And even if the tourists don’t buy anything, at least they’ve got some money to clean the town up. My second recommendation would be to go back to supporting cultural activities that make sense, to revive them a bit, to start working the trade fairs again. But doing nothing is a big mistake. Local people don’t go to the center for one simple reason. There are no ordinary pharmacies, clothing stores, normal shoe stores … If pressure from China wins out, then there’ll be a preponderance of Longchamp and Michael Kors handbags and Swarovski because businesspeople will come and offer us CZK 100,000 a month for a commercial space. But normal services – shoemakers, bakers, hardware stores – will won’t even give you 20,000. The only chance at changing things is through the buildings that belong indirectly to the development fund. So be brave and put a service in there that doesn’t have such a big financial punch. I say brave, because a month later someone will who up who’ll give thirty, fifty, one-hundred, and they’ll file a criminal complaint against the mayor for charging ten, and the town hall will say why wasn’t there a tender for the space, and why it there someone here for a couple thousand, when there might be a super-goldsmith for a hundred. Watch it with that. We’ve ended up in a pretty shabby time. A time of whistleblowers, a time of money, and suddenly it’s becoming a problem and a question of courage.
There is no normal service structure of the type needed for people to live here. But what came first – the chicken or the egg? There should also be more financial incentives to make living in the center accessible. Put some pressure on buses, but lower rents. It is reasonable to think, I want people to come here to the center, because if I don’t have people who live here, I won’t need services. Another measure might involve immediate efforts to shift tourism in a gentle way (through information) to the wider region or to direct those already in Krumlov to areas of the town that are now empty. Like the area of the synagogue and the town park. It is not an easy task, but it is realistic if there’ some extra investment in these areas. An example of this is the neighborhood of the newly-repaired monasteries.
What will Krumlov look like in twenty years? That probably depends on which way the political orientation of the entire country goes. If we go towards the East, I’m a bit worried; towards the West might be a problem, but we can at least regulate matters. Regulation is an unpopular word, but there’s no other way. If tourism keeps growing and instead of four planes a day, they start sending us fourteen, I have serious concerns. This won’t just represent pressure on an overcrowded town, it’ll be the pressure to build. And now the question is, what’s the town going to do? So far, we’ve been able to ward off hotels with a thousand rooms, but the problem is it’s not necessarily all about the center. If someone surrounds the town with gigantic hotels – between České Budějovice and Krumlov, for example – things will turn out badly.
Look, finding someone to take responsibility and stand up for something that’s generally necessary, but economically inefficient is becoming a problem. When I go to an ordinary square in a town where there are no tourists, I say: “Wow, it’s great, they have a hardware store and a kitchenware store and a florist and a hairdresser and a grocery store in brick and mortar!” We should have them in Český Krumlov, as well. That would be town-building. And it’d be nice, too.