GARTZ, Germany (Reuters) - Like most people in Szczecin, a port city on the western edge of Poland, businessman Zbigniew Sawicki thought that when his country joined the European Union a decade ago, wealthier German neighbors would pour in and buy up the city.
But events took an unexpected turn. Large numbers of well-to-do Poles from Szceczin, including many of Sawicki’s friends, are moving into Germany and buying properties on such a scale that sleepy Prussian villages are taking on a Polish air.
“Polish people are buying a lot of houses. Thousands of houses,” said Sawicki, in his metal-working factory near the border. “It is a positive surprise.”
Polish migrant workers have arrived in huge numbers all over western Europe over the past decade. But what is happening around Szczecin is different. What flows from east to west here is not cheap labor but capital and economic influence.
Szceczin, which until borders were redrawn at the end of World War Two was the German city of Stettin, has become the economic centre of gravity for a chunk of eastern Germany now struggling with decline.
The trend might hold clues about future trends in the continent, showing the potential for Europe’s poorer east, with its rapid growth and younger population, to catch up with “old Europe” with its ageing workers and less dynamic growth.
Last year, Poland’s economy slowed dramatically as it felt the effect of the euro zone slowdown, but it still grew by 2 percent. Germany’s economy flat-lined with 0.7 percent growth.
“We look to Szczecin. For us, it is a kind of hope,” said Frank Gotzmann, the local government chief in a German district near the border who is so keen to tap into Szczecin’s dynamism that his business cards are printed in German and Polish.
About 80 percent of property transactions in German areas adjacent to Szczecin (pronounced Sh-ch-echin) involve Polish buyers, according to real estate agent Radoslaw Popiela. German schools are providing classes in Polish to cater for their Polish pupils, mostly the children of professionals who commute to jobs in Szczecin.
Meanwhile, German families are making the trip across the border to Szczecin to visit the opera or philharmonic orchestra, or drink coffee at Starbucks - diversions not available at home where investment is sparse.
The half-hour drive from Szczecin, across the border into Germany, illustrates the differences between old and new Europe.
Heading south-west through the city’s suburbs, the road-sides are a messy riot of fuel stations, car dealerships and newly-built houses, all festooned with advertising billboards.
Cross the frontier into Germany and, instantly, the scenery changes. Szczecin’s suburban sprawl gives way to chocolate-box villages that do not seem to have changed for centuries.
In Rosow, the first settlement after the border, several stone cottages are falling down - the result, say locals, of young people moving away to the city.
But there are signs of new life: a rebuilt farmhouse in the centre of the village, a second renovated property a few doors away, a former restaurant being converted into apartments.
All are owned by Poles.
Real estate agent Popiela, who is Polish, bought a house in the village in 2007, fixed it up, and now lives there.
The attraction is simple economics. “To buy a 2-room flat in Szczecin you have to pay 80,000 to 90,000 euros. Here, for this price, you can have a house with a nice piece of land,” he said.
Popiela said that in Rosow, half the population was now Polish. At the kindergarten in the nearby village of Tantow, he said, more than a third of the children are Polish.
Ninety percent of the Polish settlers don’t work in Germany but commute instead to jobs in Szczecin, said Popiela.
One measure of the growth are the numbers showing up for mass in the area’s Catholic churches. Most Poles are Catholics, while this part of Germany is traditionally Protestant.
Cezary Korzec, a Polish Catholic priest who lives in Rosow, said that in the parish to which the village belongs, the number of practicing Catholics had gone from 1,200 to 1,800 in the past few years because of the influx of Poles.
“This is the fastest developing parish in Germany,” he said.
All around the German areas adjacent to Szczecin, the city’s influence is being felt in small but telling ways.
Szczecin schools make so many excursions to the zoo in Ueckermunde, a German town north-west of the city, that the signs in front of the enclosures are written in Polish. In one village, local people say, a German baker sells Polish bread.
“Szczecin is a city of 500,000 people, there is nothing comparable on the German side,” said Bogdan Twardochleb, a journalist with Kurier Szczecinski, the local newspaper. “It is a centre of gravity that pulls everything towards it.”
There is some German influence flowing largely from the economic powerhouse beyond the country’s eastern backwater. Germany is the second biggest foreign investor in Szczecin, after Cyprus.
Bartlomiej Sochanski, Germany’s honorary consul in Szczecin, said a few hundred older Germans owned holiday homes on the Baltic coast nearby but he did not know of any pre-war German residents who had returned to claim property.
Most of the flow is in the other direction.
For centuries, the German town of Gartz, like the others in the area, looked to the city then called Stettin as its regional hub. The 13th century stone gatehouse at the entrance to Gartz is called “Stettiner Tor” because it straddles the road to the city.
These ties were severed at the end of World War Two. The Red Army took control and drew a new border, leaving Gartz and Szczecin on opposite sides, and with little contact.
Reviving those links now offers a lifeline.
The shrinking population has forced both secondary schools in Gartz district to close down in the past 10 years.
The town has clusters of abandoned buildings. Where the streets dip down to the banks of the Oder river, the roof of one terraced cottage has caved in.
By attracting young Polish professionals, the district, which has a population of 7,000, hopes to arrest the decline.
In Gartz primary school, one third of pupils are Polish speakers. Without them, the authorities might be forced to close the schools down and fire the teachers.
“We see children again, and this is nice,” said Gotzmann.
Meanwhile, local Germans are starting to discover Szczecin.
Gotzmann described how the local fire chief, a fan of Starbucks who used to have to travel for hours to find a coffee house, discovered on a work trip to Szczecin that there was a branch in the city. Two days later, he took his family.
“Szczecin is okay, not the centre of the universe but the centre of the region,” said Gotzmann. “We try to work together with Szczecin ... This is the only solution for us.”
Additional reporting by Peter Andrews; Editing by Ralph Boulton