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From Coal Mines To Gold Mines

From Coal Mines To Gold Mines
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From Coal Mines To Gold Mines

ESSEN, Germany -- Swarms of tourists stroll through the vast facility, taking time to soak in the architectural wonders, visit the high-tech museum, and perhaps to dine at the swanky restaurant along the way.

Welcome to the Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex -- a once rusting anchor of western Germany's coal and steel industries whose transformation has given hope for a brighter, and greener, economic future.

The complex became the largest coal mine in Europe when its famous 12th shaft, built in Bauhaus style, opened in the 1930s on the site in Essen, in Germany's Ruhr region. But the boom times didn't last. As mining ceased to be viable, economic decline and mass unemployment followed.

What was once "the most beautiful coal mine in the world" eventually became the last coal mine in Essen. By century's end mining had stopped altogether and Zollverein became a symbol for the region's decline.

Essen's chief planning officer, Hans-Juergen Best, was among those who saw gold in the mine. He likens the effort to restore Zollverein to past efforts to preserve castles from the Middle Ages.

"Zollverein, I always say, is our industrial castle," Best says.

'Monument Of Transformation'

It's the type of thinking that finds Zollverein listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site -- Shaft 12, renowned as an example of Germany's famous Bauhaus design, received the honor in 2001 along with Zollverein's coking plant.

But the area has become more than just an industrial-heritage site. Thanks to nearly $215 million in investment from the regional government and various foundations, more than a million tourists visited Zollverein in 2011, making it an example for other industrial regions to follow.

Locally, small services have sprung up. The local university has plans to move its design center to the Zollverein site, which serves as a business park. Recently a financier announced plans to fund the construction of a hotel on the grounds.

As developer Stephan Conrad puts it, what could have been a "sad monument" is now a monument of transformation.

"On this site there is developing a lot of life -- economic life, of cultural life, of designers, artists, and museums," Conrad said.

Now the mission for Conrad, who works for R.A.G. Montan Immobilien, a branch of Germany's largest mining company, is to develop 12,000 hectares of former mining sites across the Ruhr region.

He notes success in the nearby town of Herten, where a former coal mine has been turned into a fully developed business park and a thriving cultural center. Not far away an ultramodern building -- heated by methane gas from the former coal pit underneath it -- houses a training academy for civil servants.

And well after the last of the region's coal mines are closed for good, slated for 2018, development will continue.

"We think that our job with the grounds owned by R.A.G. will need more than 50 years still after 2018," Conrad said.

There are other examples where green projects are taking root as well.

In Duisburg, 20 kilometers west of Essen, a massive park has been carved out of the grounds of a shuttered iron works.

Claudia Kalinowski, spokeswoman for Landscape Park Duisburg Nord, describes the concept.

"The underlying idea is basically to give back an ecological space and a recreational space where you can spend time; where you can be free to do anything; where you can explore, yourself; where you can have fun; but also which is green," Kalinowski said.

The site now functions around the clock, offering bicycle trails, playgrounds, concert halls, and an outdoor cinema. Old iron-ore bunkers now attract climbers to "Duisburg's Alps," and scuba divers dip their fins in an old gas reservoir to explore a shipwreck 13 meters below the surface.

Reviving Eastern Europe

The park now employs 350 people -- the same number that worked there when iron-production ceased.

Kalinowski believes the transformation of the Ruhr can be replicated elsewhere in Europe and beyond.

"There is a lot of work to be done, a lot of ideas to be had. But it can definitely be done and should be done because these areas hold so much history and so many ideas and so many possibilities for the people and the cities that they shouldn't be wasted," Kalinowski said.

Already, says Jens Hapke, who works for the Ruhr Regional Association (RVR), representatives from Eastern Europe have visited to gather ideas for rejuvenating their own depressed industrial centers.

And this month, for the first time, the effort to find fortuity in a coal mine will cross borders when a mining area in Poland and Ukraine's Donbass region join the Ruhr in celebrating "Extra Schicht," or Extra Shift.

Since 2001, the "night of industrial culture" has turned former and operating Ruhr production facilities into high-culture venues for a night.

Tourists arriving for this year's event, scheduled for June 30, will find a number of interesting events on offer.

They can take in a multimedia art installation displayed on 40-meter-high digester tanks at Dortmund's sewage plant. They can recreate the 1920s, "when the machines still made noise," for a night of swing music at the Zweckel Machine Hall in Gladbeck.

Or, if they choose to head to Zollverein, they can pop by the old "coal-fired power plant disguised as a dinosaur" before hitting the "penthouse party on the coal-washing plant."

In the end it's a chance for the region to shake its new money-maker -- transforming industrial wasteland into green-friendly destinations.
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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.