Friday, February 3

Covid recovery funding pits Italy’s dying towns against each other | Italy

Perched on a rock surrounded by a vast nature reserve, the hilltop hamlet of Trevinano sent tremors across the Lazio region when it was announced this month that it and its 142 residents were in line for €20m (£16.73m) from a Covid recovery fund to save small villages on the verge of extinction – equal to a whopping €140,845 per resident.

“This initiative is generating a lot of envy and bad feeling,” said Alessandra Terrosi, the mayor of Trevinano, who has the responsibility for spending the millions before 2026, when the funding program ends. The hamlet’s good fortune has fueled rancour among its neighbors who missed out, raised questions about how efficiently Italy will invest some of the €191bn coming its way from the EU’s post-pandemic recovery fund and had critics asking if €20m is just too much money for one small village.

Trevinano was pitted against 14 other candidates in Lazio, including the region’s better known gem, the fortress-like Civita di Bagnoregio, for a slice of the €420m fund.

Alessandra Terrosi: ‘We weren’t asking for the moon.’ Photograph: Angela Giuffrida/The Guardian

“We went through exactly the same procedures as everyone else, and our project was judged to be the best,” said Terrosi, who alongside her team of two councilors worked around the clock to come up with the hamlet’s winning project, called Re-Wind . “I think we won because of its feasibility – we weren’t asking for the moon, we simply proposed a series of things that were practical.”

Trevinano was settled by the Etruscans 2,500 years ago, and in the 1960s had about 1,000 residents before the population decline took hold. Today, it hosts two restaurants, one with a Michelin star, but there is no supermarket, school or cashpoint, and the post office is only open one day a week.

In five years’ time, Terrosi envisages it as a bustling place filled with students, remote workers, artisans and visitors enjoying concerts in the gardens of its castle. The hoped-for revival will be ushered in by a project that includes creating a student training hub, offering programs such as reforestation, as well as renovating dozens of empty homes and making them available to tourists and pensioners. Terrosi plans to revive agricultural initiatives, pointing to the example of a couple who moved to the area and bought a vineyard that now produces local wine. It may also generate its own electricity.

It is a vision supported by its residents. “People from other towns are jealous but the mayor has done something very good, we have never had anything before,” says Elide Marelli, who moved to Trevinano after marrying a local.

Among those from other towns is her gardener, Elio, who lives in the nearby Acquapendente. “I have a lot of friends here… I just hope they don’t all become snobs.”

Civita di Bagnoregio

A child runs towards the entrance to the town of Civita di Bagnoregio, accessible only by bridge.
A child runs towards the entrance to the town of Civita di Bagnoregio, accessible only by bridge. Photograph: Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters

An hour’s drive away is Civita di Bagnoregio, where Luca Profili, the mayor of the hamlet perched on a plateau of volcanic rock with a permanent population a tenth that of Trevinano’s, was among the first to object to the resources going to one village.

Luca Profil.
Luca Profil. Photograph: Angela Giuffrida/The Guardian

“Obviously, if we’d won, I would have been really happy,” he said. “But my point is that it would be better to share the money more evenly between several villages so that a whole area could be developed, especially because it’s extremely difficult for small administrations to manage such huge amounts of money. And with a deadline of 2026, it’s not going to be easy.”

The controversy shows no sign of dissipating, with leaders in other Italian regions scrapping as they await the verdict on their own €20m winner.

“If you play one off against the other, it’s obvious there is going to be anger and division,” said Marco Bussone, the Piedmont president of Uncem, the national union of mountain communities, who wants the awards abolished. “It’s basically a lottery. But pivoting funds on one village won’t generate development, what it will create is a tourist resort, and we don’t want that. The money is meant to reduce inequality – we need projects that regenerate communities across a whole area.”

Italy is the biggest beneficiary of the EU’s recovery fund, and a significant chunk of the grants and loans will need to be repaid by taxpayers. Francesco Grillo, a political economist and director of the thinktank Vision, said the village initiative casts serious doubts on how efficiently Italy will invest the rest of the cash. In addition to the €420m for some of Italy’s tiniest settlements, a further €580m is on offer to 229 villages of fewer than 5,000 people.

“These small administrations are expected to apply for something very complicated and overcome difficult milestones,” said Grillo. “It’s like asking a very small cat to eat a massive cow. By tomorrow. It’s worrying.” He also doubted the project would achieve the objective of reviving dying towns. “One thing is revitalizing places which have links to big cities, the other is trying to repopulate remote areas – my question is: would it be sustainable?”

A Trevinano street.  The hamlet has lost much of its population.
A street in Trevinano. The hamlet has lost much of its population. Photograph: Zoonar GmbH/Alamy

The residents of Trevinano seem to think so. “We invested here when there really was nothing,” said Romano Gordini, who owns the La Parolina restaurant with his wife, the Michelin star chef Iside de Cesare. “It’s great that Italy is relaunching from places that are usually forgotten.” The restaurant attracts a good flow of custom from Lazio and neighboring Umbria and Tuscany, and is hoping the project will bring in more. Gordini enjoys Trevinano’s stunning scenery and slow pace of life.

“It’s otherworldly,” he said.

“Once you visit Trevinano, you always come back,” said Marelli.

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