Old German City Tries To Regain Lost Grandeur

Leipzig aims to turn its bazaar legacy into trade-show prowess

The new fairground on the outskirts of Leipzig gleams like the City of Oz. It is the glass-and-concrete symbol of the city's efforts to reclaim its heritage as the oldest trade-fair center in Europe.

Opened in April by Roman Herzog, president of Germany, the $900-million meeting and exhibition-hall complex is the biggest single construction project in the former East Germany.

In the communist period, Leipzigers used to be able to count on getting bananas twice a year, during the giant semiannual fairs that displayed everything from armaments to leather handbags. At that time, Leipzig was famously the center for east-west trade.

That was then. This is now. Bananas are available year round, and the Leipzig Fair counts on about 30 events a year - not the indiscriminate, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink shows of yore, but "niche" events, more specialized shows. "One area we have developed is a specialized fair focusing on the renovation and preservation of historic buildings," says Wolfgang Bildstein, executive vice president of the Leipzig Fair.

Another show to take place next spring will focus on second-hand factories. In Central and Eastern Europe, Mr. Bildstein says, there are any number of factories that simply shut down when the political changes of the last few years swept through. There are also factories that were under construction at the time of change that never opened.

"In some cases, the equipment is still in the original packing crates," Bildstein adds. Munitions factories with potential for conversion to civilian production are a part of this rather unusual "market."

Next spring, he hopes to connect, in person or by videoconference, thousands of buyers and sellers of such factories and equipment from across Central and Eastern Europe. And if it's a success, he'll do it again in a year or two. The fair typically has 30 to 40 such concepts in the works at any given time to be developed using creativity and market research.

Thus Leipzig is making a virtue of necessity: It is having to compete with other cities that grew up as fair and trade-show centers during Leipzig's 40 years behind the Iron Curtain. Frankfurt, for instance, had little trade-show business before World War II, but since the war has been the home of Germany's biggest book fair.

Leipzig, with its strong cultural and historic base, is one of the brighter lights in eastern Germany, and a center for the service industry, insurance, and banking, as well as the fair and related activities.

Reconnecting with traditions

The competition with other cities for the trade-show business is part of the process of reconnecting Leipzig with its traditions. Bildstein, for example, notes that the four dozen or so "partner firms" the fair works with in staging shows are active in other fair cities as well. This helps them sharpen their professional skills by competition in other world-class markets.

Leipzig was long known as a center of the book trade, too. The city had what was known as "the graphic quarter" where all the specialties of the book publishing and printing industry were found cheek by jowl. Well-established companies like Duden, Brockhaus, and Insel were based here.

But the community was decimated by the war, since many of the owners were Jewish. But by the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Leipzig was known largely as the place where schoolbooks for Warsaw Pact countries were printed.

Back to the books

Christian Jacke, deputy mayor of Leipzig, sees the book trade as another piece of the city's heritage that should be reclaimed. Like Bildstein, he stresses the value of exposing Leipzig companies to competition.

Leipzig's other big need, he says, is for more entrepreneurs - imported from the west until they can be homegrown here - people who have a sense of ownership because they do actually own productive resources. For too many years, he adds, property ownership was quite politically incorrect. As a result, no one had the financial resources to buy or to start an enterprise.

Mr. Jacke looks out of his office in the Rathaus (which like virtually every other building here is being renovated) and points to another building being restored, one of the concrete-block legacies of communism. "That was built by administrators, by bureaucrats," he says.

Then he points to another building, a much older structure that is likewise being redone, but which clearly has more character. "That," says Jacke, a native of Bielefeld in western Germany, "was built by a Bauherr," meaning a "construction lord." In other words, these houses weren't built by administrators or committees, as were the generic communist-era buildings, they were built by individual owners whose identities they expressed.

When will eastern Germany close the gap?

"It will take 20 to 25 years, until the first generation to grow up out from under socialism starts into professional life," Jacke says.

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