• In addition to its booming economy, Plovdiv has other features that are attracting more and more people - its culture and cool vibe.
Having long been in the shadow of the capital city, Sofia, in recent years Plovdiv has been catching up rapidly - economically, socially and culturally, turning into an alternative place to visit, work and, why not - live. This applies to Bulgarian nationals and foreigners alike. Walking down the cobblestoned alleys of the hip Kapana (literally "the Trap") district, you can distinguish the tourists coming from abroad from the more permanent Plovdiv residents - the digital nomads, for whom the "City of Seven Hills" has turned into a temporary home while they work for clients all over the world, and the longer-term expatriates, typically engineers or high level managers in one of the dozens of foreign-owned factories that sprawl around the city in the Trakia Economic Zone.
The economic backbone
The success of Plovdiv comes primarily from the development of a dynamic industrial belt around it in the past two decades, mostly north of the Maritsa River which divides the city in two. According to the mayor of Plovdiv, Ivan Totev, the six economic zones that go under the joint label of Trakia have attracted a total investment of over 4 billion euro from both domestic and foreign sources.
The economic cluster has seen more than 200 companies open shop, with about 7-8 factories popping up each year, according to vice-mayor Stefan Stoyanov, whose portfolio includes education, business development, European policies and international development. "We have seen an increase of higher technology industries since 2011, which has pushed the lower profile industries to the smaller cities around us," he told Capital.
The latest addition to the industrial park of the city is French aircraft parts manufacturer Latecoere. The company will invest 15 million euro over three years into the construction of an assembly line to service its best known client, Airbus, and into training at least 200 people to man it.
According to data from the Trakia Tech platform, Plovdiv has the highest percentage of people in active employment after Sofia - 55.4%, with Bulgaria's average standing at 52%. While many other regions in the country depopulate, Plovdiv has experienced a mechanical population growth of 2,400 people last year, the data shows. In 2017 alone, the number of people employed in the city increased by 38,000, while senior managers at some of the largest companies complain they are unable to find skilled workers to fill dozens of vacancies.
In order to combat labor shortages, the private sector has gathered around the founder of Trakia Economic Zone, Plamen Panchev, and has launched a Center for Training of Technical Specialists. It is supposed to become a platform to pool resources, including laboratories, training facilities and know-how by the larger companies that would ultimately result in training programs for technicians that deal with pneumatics, hydraulics, PLS controllers, robotics and intelligent building management systems.
"The business is struggling, as it is harder and harder to find sufficiently trained staff with tech expertise," Panchev concludes. To combat this, he adds, the training center has created dedicated programs for different levels of workers that can produce up to 500 trained specialists for the industry in a year. According to Panchev, the training center will help both smaller companies that cannot dedicate scarce resources to making their own training facilities, as well as large companies that can train people on a mass scale.
While the large factories, employing hundreds of workers, are important in turning Plovdiv into a powerhouse, there is a different cluster of businesses and people forming - innovators who aim at pushing the city's economy up the value chain.
One of them is Yovko Lambrev, an IT specialist and entrepreneur who helped launch the Trakia Tech platform in order to cultivate a next -generation image of the city and attract new types of businesses. "Our idea is to gather under one roof the people with ideas, the people with money and the industry whose problems they need to address. This is how we plan to turn Plovdiv from an industrial into an innovative capital," he told Capital newspaper.
Lambrev thinks that the IT sector is much less involved with the industry than it can, the ecosystem of start-ups is still just budding and the solutions they present to the production companies still do not amount to digital transformation. "Each factory has its individual needs to integrate its systems, and the technological know-how is inbound, we just need to connect them in the right way," he adds.
Some of the companies are trying to upgrade their facilities, but it has more to do with catching up with technologies that are already mainstream, like integrated administrative tools and online Customer Relationship Management software than with automation and Industry 4.0, according to Georgi Angelov, a web designer and IT solutions company owner.
Yet, slowly but steadily, Bulgarian companies are learning from their international counterparts next door and are starting to invest in both tech infrastructure and marketing, advertising and human resources. According to Vanina Kutseva and Ivan Bondokov, co-founders of the Limacon training platform and consultancy, Plovdiv business owners are opening up to concepts that were far off just a few years ago - corporate training, digital marketing, design and human resource management. "We support small and medium-sized businesses in areas where they can't afford budgets for people in full-time position," Bondokov says.
A cool city
In addition to its booming economy, Plovdiv has other features that are attracting more and more people - its culture and vibe. One summer evening walk across the Kapana district will present you with many dine out opportunities, dozens of bars and a few clubs where one can dance the night away.
The artistic feel of the small, twisted narrow alleys of the artisan district has been boosted by a combination of local government intervention and entrepreneurship on behalf of a few brave business people. One of them is Venelin Draganov, owner of a woodcarving workshop in Kapana, who ventured into what he describes as "the parking lot and the toilet of the main street of the city" in 2013, a mere five years ago. Now he describes the change as "all-encompassing".
This is due to people like him and the owners of the Cat and Mouse bar and café, Ivaylo Dernev and Dimitar Semkov. The latter two opened the bar which now holds a cult status in the heart of the district and practically developed the present branding of the neighborhood on their online platforms Pod Tepeto, Lost In Plovdiv and Kapana.bg. Around them, a selection of other now well-known places opened up, including the top Trip Advisor restaurant Pavaj ("cobblestone" in Bulgarian) and the Gingertale cocktail bar. Dozens of yearly events like the Kapana Fest and the Night of Museums and Galleries are now hosted in the artisan district, whose mellow and warm summer night time atmosphere can only be properly experienced, not explained.
The foreigners who bring color
One of the people who can tell a lot about this atmosphere is one of its greatest admirers - Alessandro Salerno, an engineer and senior manager at electrical equipment manufacturer ABB, who has been living in the city for four years. "It's seven o'clock and I have finished work, I went to the gym, took a shower and now I am here with you, having a drink", he told Capital on a lazy Friday afternoon in the summer. After having worked near Rome for a few years, the Southern Italian says that there he'd still have been in the metro at this time of the day. The manager, who is responsible for up to 1,000 people in his company, can easily be found around Kapana in the quiet afternoons and he is happy about the calmer lifestyle he has acquired in Plovdiv. So are hundreds of other foreigners, who had established a living and breathing community in the city and gather each week in a bar in Kapana for drinks and exchanges.
It is very likely that the city will continue attracting people from abroad in the coming year, as it will co-host the European Capital of Culture in 2019 alongside the Italian city of Matera. There will be more than 300 events taking place in the months ahead, including projects dedicated to the integration of ethnic and minority groups from Plovdiv's Stolipinovo Roma district through art workshops, a program to transform and revive abandoned urban spaces, including the old Tobacco District and the Socialist-era Cosmos Cinema and even a Balkan swing dance competition and festival.
Additionally, the Mood for Food festival will attract foodies from around the world. The already traditional One Dance Week contemporary dance festival will take place alongside the Opera Open events in the Ancient Roman Theatre. A jazz fest, youth symphony project and the massive Hills of Rock fest are also going to contribute to the vibrant atmosphere of the city. Plovdiv is not without problems, though. Its road infrastructure has yet to catch up with the economic boom in order to alleviate traffic congestion. The rising tourist inflow (mayor Ivan Totev has said the city expects 2 million visitors in 2019) has not led to an adequate increase in the number of hotel rooms. This applies to real estate overall - prices are rising and the supply side is slow to deliver. With people working in the city's northern districts, where most of the factories are located, but sleeping in the southern ones, traffic jams are widespread. Add to that a less-than-perfect public transportation system and you have a nerve-racking cocktail, at least for a few hours in the morning and the afternoon.
An attempt of the Bulgarian government to award a concession contract for the operation of Plovdiv Airport and thus attract fresh investment failed in July after China's HNA Airport Group withdrew from the deal, delaying the process of further opening the city to international travel.