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Reverse brain drain: How three siblings recreated a century-old Polish resort

The Mankowski siblings were born and educated in France. But they returned to Szczawnica, Poland, and have restored their great-grandfather's resort to its former glory.

By Staff writer / November 2, 2012

Christophe and Nicolas Mankowski, standing at the window of their main office. The wooden window-porch design was an original feature of the Austro-Hungarian era building in this southern Polish region. The Mankowskis have helped local townspeople and property owners restore or add similar designs to their own structures.

Robert Marquand /The Christian Science Monitor

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Szczawnica, Poland

In the Mankowski resort world, things are happening. Work is underway. Ladders are out. Workmen are scraping down the balustrade of a post office and fixing a fountain. What had been a remote and sleepy resort town is under attack by painters and craftspeople.

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In the space of five years, the Mankowskis have done something many said was impossible: They came to Poland and rebuilt a resort with two hotels, one a five-star with design concepts from Paris. They restored a burned-out concert house. They anchored facilities around a new resort clubhouse with a “water bar,” and re-landscaped the run-down communist-era town with European Union funds. And 22 other structures and ski slopes are on the drawing board.

Yet what may have been the most difficult redevelopment was changing the minds of locals and others who first pooh-poohed the idea.

“I heard far too many times that ‘This is Poland, your idea is impossible,’ ” says Christophe Mankowski, a voluble and bustling entrepreneur who creates new ice cream flavors as a hobby.

“In Poland, you explain a way to do things differently and everyone says it is impossible. Everyone complains, ‘It will never happen, Look at him. This is Poland, forget it. But now we have a five-star hotel, and people understand we aren’t just building hotels, we are building a city.”

The Mankowski siblings – Christophe, brother Nicolas, and sister Helena – were born and educated in France. But their engineer father came from Krakow to Paris in the early 1970s and later moved to Moscow to make a fortune in information systems.

Now the Mankowskis, in their 30s, have returned to their Polish roots along the Slovak border – winning back some of the family land nationalized under communist rule. They’ve reclaimed and rebuilt the dream of their great-grandfather, Adam Stadnicki, a count who fell in love with the area in 1909 and developed it. A hundred years later, the count’s offspring still identify Poland as their native realm.

The quaint town has been a remote mineral-spring spa since the 19th century, stamped with the ornate carved-wood porches on Austo-Hungarian Alpine A-frames. The town’s higher elevations offer vistas of the Slovakian Tatra Mountains that resemble the craggy peaks of the New Zealand set of the “Lord of the Rings” film. Fly fishers in waders wave their wands in rivers that produced a local kayaking Olympian.

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