Nicolae Robu has witnessed the key changes in Timisoara’s recent history from a unique vantage point. As a young teacher at the Politehnica University he participated in the protests in Timisoara that ignited the Romanian Revolution and brought down the Ceausescu regime in 1989. After going on to serve as rector of the university, Robu – today’s city mayor – is busily updating the local infrastructure and business environment, as well as preparing for the city’s coronation as European Capital of Culture 2021. Here, he talks about the developments he has overseen since becoming mayor in 2012 and Timisoara’s future as a destination for international investment and tourism
What have you made your main priorities and what headway have you made in these areas since becoming mayor in 2012?
When I ran for mayor, I made the need to attract investment, especially from abroad, a key issue. And we have attracted a lot of foreign investment, to the point that Forbes has listed Timisoara as the best location in Romania for FDI several years in a row. After I became mayor, I realized that the city’s infrastructure is very old and that nothing had been done to upgrade it for half a century. I have focused mostly on mobility infrastructure, and I feel that I have had good results, notably four new underground tunnels. We also have modernized streets, enlarging all the main traffic arteries with more traffic lanes and introducing a modern traffic management system. The river bridges have also been enlarged. All of these measures make the traffic more fluid, and the waiting time has been reduced. Pollution is also down because traffic is flowing constantly, and alternative mobility devices have also been encouraged, such as bicycles and segways. The public transportation system has also been developed, with a focus on electric trams and buses. Another important achievement is that the historic center has been rehabilitated and transformed into the largest pedestrian area in Romania, comprising 27 streets, four main squares and two smaller ones. Through this transformation, streets that were once lifeless and full of cars now contribute to a higher standard of living for everyone. Timisoara citizens used to have very limited spaces in which to spend their free time, meaning they were stuck at home watching the television. Now, after work thousands of people go straight to the center, some of them staying there until late in the evening. Many cultural and artistic events are held, free of charge, in these new public spaces, meaning all people have access to culture, no matter what their socioeconomic circumstances. Other important investments have been made in reconstructing housing stock, and in education and healthcare equipment. Regarding what we could call cultural infrastructure, we are about to create eight cultural centers spread across the city through the rehabilitation of old cinemas from the communist era. We have also set up youth centers in several areas reusing disused heating infrastructure facilities. So we have made an effort to not simply focus on the center, but also make improvements in peripheral areas.
Another element to your plan to attract greater investment is the creation of the so-called ‘Western Alliance’ along with the cities of Cluj, Oradea and Arad. What is the current status of this project?
We announced the creation of the alliance in 2018, but for bureaucratic reasons, it is not yet a legal entity. I hope that this situation will be resolved shortly, but in the meantime, the four cities are continuing to work together on plans, but without the possibility of applying for actual funds. Timisoara will be the headquarters of the alliance, which will have a rotating presidency. One of the major objectives of this alliance is to boost connectivity between the four cities. We also wish to be in a position to apply more pressure on the national government to complete three highway projects, which will greatly improve connectivity within the western region, between the region and the capital, and beyond to the Black Sea ports. Romania’s southeast would become more connected to the west, and therefore with the rest of Europe. Romania’s government must use European Union funds and resources from the national budget to connect the main economic regions in a more efficient way, but at present there are gaps of a few hundred kilometers here and there that are holding us back. It’s about the economy and also for citizens’ lives. At present, it takes five hours to drive the 350 kilometers from Timisoara to Cluj. It’s not good enough. We also want to contribute to Romania’s high-speed railway project. Once the alliance is a legal reality, we will be able to obtain funds directly from Brussels. Also in healthcare, we want to establish new hospitals on a regional basis, providing the first new hospitals here for three decades.
What can you reveal about the plans for Timisoara’s year as European Capital of Culture 2021?
Timisoara will present itself with a very rich and well-defined cultural program in all of the seven arts. Part of the program will have a very strong regional flavor, while others will bring distinctive European elements from other parts of the continent, as well as other global aspects that will combine to make Timisoara feel like the cultural capital of the world. We want to be a genuine capital, and one of the things that defines a capital in this era is openness to the world and being truly international. We are preparing the city in such a way so that it will be highly functional, and we are encouraging private investment and making sure that there will be a broad offering of accommodation and leisure activities. The event will help us to develop all existing cultural institutions in Timisoara, as well as boosting culture-related NGOs and associations, and even individual professional artists. I should also say that security is a very important issue for our local administration, and we are working side by side with state institutions to ensure the continued safety of people and property in the city.
How much do you view 2021 as a springboard to launch Timisoara as a tourism destination?
Visitor numbers have grown in Timisoara in recent years, and I am sure 2021 will bring a huge influx of tourism. We are developing cultural and leisure tourism, as well as business travel. Besides the city, the region has much to offer and the western alliance will also cooperate on tourism. And we will be building tourism connections with neighboring regions in Hungary and Serbia. What we want to ensure is that Timisoara makes such an impression so that it remains in people’s minds after 2021, and continue to be a major tourism attraction. Business tourism will play a key part in this future.
How important is German investment to Timisoara?
German investment in Timisoara is extremely welcome. Through German investment, very interesting employment for the youth has been created both from a professional point of view, and also in terms of revenues. The presence of German companies brings knowledge and ideas to the city, notably on the organizational level and regarding the way of doing business. Their presence stimulates entrepreneurship; the people who work in a German company often go on to start their own business knowing how things work.
What would be your overall message to the readership of Die Welt?
As mayor of Timisoara, I would like to convey that this is a pleasant city, where investment and business are flourishing. I invite Die Welt readers to come and visit us, and I am sure that once they have done so, they will want to come back.