Spanish urban entrepreneurs yield to the lure of rural living

Spain's rural development is on the rise, thanks in part to entrepreneurs and professionals like Juan Hurtado, who is transforming an old train station into a cooperative living community.

Andrés Cala
Juan Hurtado stands in front of La Estación, in Zuzones, Spain. The abandoned railway station he renovated will become a home to several families.

A move to the countryside isn't easy, even when attempted by self-motivated, savvy professionals.

But Spain's recession is driving many citizens to give rural life a second look, reimagining it as a place for a higher quality of life, temporary living, or early retirement – not just cows and crops.

Rural areas are becoming bedroom communities, with 40 percent of Spain's rural population working in cities. Large industries in pursuit of lower costs are also slowly relocating to rural areas adjacent to cities. But in the future, rural development will specially depend on attracting entrepreneurs and professionals like Juan Hurtado, owner of a small renewable-energy equipment firm.

He negotiated an eight-year concession with the state-controlled railway company for a small plot of land with a decrepit, long-closed railway station in Zuzones, less than an hour west of Rioseco. Mr. Hurtado renovated the station into a five-bedroom rural hotel, called La Estación, originally intending it to be a tourist destination. That fell through, so he has now partnered with a nongovernmental organization to develop it as a home to four families and four paying guests.

The permanent residents, who have separate sources of income or new projects to develop (La Estación itself is not a source of income), are united in their wish to live in the country for both economic and personal reasons. By joining forces, they lower their living costs by creating a self-sustainable residence.

La Estación officially takes off in July, and it has a good chance of survival precisely because it is the result of hard lessons learned by city slickers. The risks are minimal and, in any case, mostly shouldered individually. The fact that the residents are all middle-aged, experienced professionals committed to a long-term experiment – as opposed to younger, unemployed individuals who will more likely return to the city once the economy improves – is an asset.

The Association of Resettlers of Abandoned Towns, as the NGO partnering with Hurtado is called, now comprises around a dozen people. They, too, failed in their first attempt at repopulating an abandoned town, but those who decided to try again now plan to build eco-friendly homes. Four rooms in the old train station will be rented at low monthly rates to pay for community expenses. (Each person put in equal cash to start the project.) There will be a pool, a garden, a playground, and a large workshop for residents.

"The hardest thing is finding the right people. I'm just worried that some will change their minds," Hurtado says. But if it works out, he hopes to bring his two teenage sons to live there.

Hurtado will live in the attic of La Estación and use an old warehouse for his renewable-energy business. "I couldn't do this alone. But people from the city, including me, want to move out, and we are putting together synergies," he says. "It's a symbiosis. It's about being self-sustainable in housing, energy, and some other resources, like the garden."

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