PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC — When Kathy Sween and her husband, Herb, came to Prague in 1993, they decided almost immediately that this was what they had been looking for.
The retired couple had always wanted to open their own business. As she crossed the 14th century Charles Bridge, Ms. Sween says, "We saw nothing but opportunity. Everything was needed in those days. And downtown was like a big party. You couldn't walk out of earshot of a band playing on the street."
Today, Prague Cyber-Laundromat, Sween's invention and the city's only mix of coin-operated washing machines and Internet terminals, is a steady stream of activity from backpackers washing whites to locals checking their e-mail.
Since the fall of Communist rule in 1989, Americans and their businesses have been flocking to this medieval capital, drawn by the adventure of an emerging market, the beauty of the "city of a hundred spires," and the romantic notions of a country whose president, Vaclav Havel, was once a dissident playwright. The influx of twentysomething Americans peaked in the early '90s, creating a modern version of the artsy expatriate scene of Paris in the 1920s.
Despite a waning economy and continuing bureaucratic tie-ups, the tide doesn't seem to be ebbing. The American Chamber of Commerce in Prague estimates there are about 500 US businesses in the Czech Republic, growing at rate of 20 percent a year. Direct US investment amounted to $258 million in 1998.
The businesses range from bagel shops to banks and include branch offices of institutions such as Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Procter & Gamble, and Colgate-Palmolive.
Not that the process is easy. Sween, who poured her life savings into the Cyber-Laundromat, notes there were problems with inept contractors, overly demanding inspectors, a mammoth language barrier, and few laws to protect her.
"Before you even think of doing anything, get yourself a good accountant and a good lawyer," she advises. "Because you could be in trouble and not even know you're in trouble."
Pennsylvania clothing designer Bethea Zoli came hoping to find a cheap manufacturer, but ended up investing $500,000 in a plan to convert a former meat market into a cultural center that would include a restaurant, art gallery, and dance club. The creators later backed out, leaving her the business.
Today, Radost FX (radost is Czech for "pleasure"), a two-story establishment with music downstairs and pasta served until 4 a.m. above, is one of Europe's best-known and successful nightclubs.
"Two types of people come to Prague," Ms. Zoli says. "There's the business person who looks at all the opportunity. Then there's the person looking strictly for the adventure. For me, it was the adventure."
Like other young executives, Michael Hackworth, with accounting and auditing giant PricewaterhouseCoopers, was drawn by the opportunity for a faster climb up the corporate ladder. Mr. Hackworth, in his mid-40s, is a managing partner at the Prague branch, where three other Americans, all under 40, work at senior manager or partner positions.
"Anytime you have an environment with rapid socioeconomic change, you're going to have very young professionals very quickly going up to leadership positions," he says.
Businesses don't offer the only opportunities. Gregory Linington came from southern California to act. He started pulling curtains for a local American production company and soon began landing roles. He's appeared in Canadian movies filmed in Prague, and the US miniseries "Joan of Arc." "I'm playing roles here I wouldn't get in 10 years in the States," says Mr. Linington.
"It's a good, easy life here," he adds. "It's Europe.... I pay rent and I pay my phone bill and that's all I have to worry about."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society