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After The Fiesta, A High Tech Haven Maybe


Letter From Spain

AFTER THE FIESTA, A HIGH-TECH HAVEN--MAYBE

To the people of Seville, the quiet that has descended on the site of this year's world's fair is unnerving. The six-month-long fiesta drew more than 16 million visitors to the capital of Andalusia. But Expo '92 ended on Oct. 12, and nearly all the 20,000 Spaniards who worked at the fair are now out of a job. Giant steel cranes are dismantling some of the 98 pavilions on the island of Cartuja in the middle of the Guadalquivir River. The question on everyone's mind: What now?

For most of this century, the rest of Spain saw Seville as a picturesque but sleepy backwater. The fair commemorated the 500th anniversary of Columbus' first voyage and the beginning of the city's long-ago golden age. In the 16th century, Seville grew rich as the main link between Spain and the Americas, but eventually it was eclipsed by other trading centers in other countries.

Expo '92 was part of a wider effort to put Seville back on the world map, giving it not only a new image but a new infrastructure. The fair alone cost $2.2 billion to mount. In recent years, an additional $8 billion was pumped into the region by the socialist government of Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez, a former Seville labor lawyer. Gonzalez has made a point of justifying the outlay as a "rectification of an historic imbalance" between northern Spain and the traditionally poor, rural south.

SPRUCED UP. "Look at the building across the street. It's just as I remember it 50 years ago," says 80-year-old Jose Maria Diaz Pardo as he leans out of his paint store to appreciate one of the hundreds of facades that were restored to spruce up the city for the fair. No question, Seville got a first-class cleanup: The government spent huge sums to build Spain's first high-speed railway (linking Seville to Madrid), new highways that crisscross Andalusia, several new bridges spanning the Guadalquivir, and a new airport. All of this was supposed to help position Seville as a high-tech mecca for the 21st century.

But that future, Diaz Pardo says, is far from certain. "The economic situation is bad now, and we all want to live well and work little," he says. Still, while the fair's accounts are being tallied, Spanish officials and business representatives are stumping for private investment in what seems an unlikely project for this part of Spain. A state-run corporation called Cartuja '93 is lining up domestic and foreign companies to turn the fairgrounds into a high-tech research-and-development center.

"This is the most ambitious development project in southern Europe," says Damaso Quintana, regional manager for IBM, which so far is the largest corporate supporter of the project. IBM plans to turn its Expo '92 pavilion into a Language Technology Center and a management-training facility. The company intends to develop computer-voice technology in English, Spanish, and French. But selling other multinationals on Cartuja '93 has not been easy because of management's insistence that companies engage in R&D rather than manufacturing or sales. So, the vision of Seville as a kind of Andalusian hacienda of high tech is far from being realized.

Part of the reason may be that Seville remains a rather laid-back place. "We're not in a hurry. An R&D project like this can't be filled in six months," says Cristina Garcia, chief of staff of Cartuja '93. "Silicon Valley remained a Hewlett-Packard project for many years. This is medium- to long-term." Cartuja officials now say some 50 companies have submitted 70 R&D projects.

It's an eclectic list. Siemens will use its own Expo pavilion for a computer-research and training center. Tecnologica, a Madrid-based electronics maker, has signed up to do electronics R&D in the former South Korean pavilion. Spain's Health Ministry will study health-care technology in the Red Cross pavilion. And Seville's provincial government will set up a new-technologies training center to prepare Sevillanos for jobs in the grand high-tech era Cartuja is supposed to usher in.

NEW AGE. Cartuja's boosters see their project as a way to change the world's view of Seville--as well as Sevillanos' view of themselves. "The typical Andalusian gentry, with his wild nights and his estate run by an administrator, is now a thing of the past," says Luis Retamero, chairman of Controlban, a Spanish computer company that bought the Austrian pavilion. "I think Seville has recovered its sense of belonging not only to Spain, but to the rest of the world," adds Elias Lopez-Soba, the representative in Spain of Puerto Rico, whose government is setting up an R&D center at the former Expo site.

Even if they have no high-tech aspirations, most Sevillanos agree that their city has changed for the better. "Before, there used to be huge traffic jams, the San Bernardo bridge used to back up all the way, and it was a mess taking the bus to work," says toy-store sales clerk Lidia Sanchez. Now, she says, the new bridges have cut the traffic and shortened her commuting time.

"This town used to look uncared for, a bit seedy," says Jaime Conde, a University of Seville student. "The buildings and monuments have been cleaned up now, and it wouldn't have happened without the Expo." But the end of the fiesta has its downside. "Now that it's over, I doubt they'll do any more."

BRAIN POWER. Students at the university are counting on the changes continuing. The university is housed in the majestic 18th century buildings that were originally the Royal Tobacco factory, the setting for Bizet's Carmen.

Today, young men and women hurry through columned inner courtyards, past 12-foot-high doorways that still bear signs reading "machinist" and "waste chute." The students are quick to tell you that a large portion of the plans to change Seville--and in the process provide them with the jobs their studies are preparing them for--germinated here.

Biologist Antonio Medina, rector of the university since last June, is one of a group of academics whose two-volume study on how to develop the region got the planners of Expo and Cartuja to adopt the idea of town-gown cooperation in advanced technology. "We've tried to pattern this on the model of Boston and other U.S. cities," Medina says. That is the dream.

But Medina readily admits that the reality is that Seville, even after the fair and all the investments, is not yet on the map for most big corporations. "Obviously, Seville is still on the periphery in Europe, nearly in North Africa," he says. Indeed, there's a certain skepticism among Sevillanos. Jose Maria Diaz Pardo, the paint-store owner, applauds the improvements in his hometown but questions whether the multinationals that the planners hope to attract will really set up shop here--and if they do come, he wonders if they'll stay: "What if they all decide to go to Portugalinstead?"GARY ABRAMSON


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