Kayseri: Home to Turkey’s best entrepreneurs

The central Anatolian city of Kayseri, stretched under the snow-capped mountains, represents possibly the best example of Turkey’s entrepreneurship in the heartland that has changed the landscape of Turkey in the last decade not only in terms of economic progress but in political activism as well. Located at the crossroads of major trading routes since ancient times, Kayseri now leads the group called the Anatolian Tigers, a group of companies flourishing rapidly in trade and industry, which has had a significant impact on shaping policies in economy, politics, society and culture.

I had a chance to have a sit down with Kayseri Mayor Mehmet Özhaseki, the first politician who was able to get elected four times to the office in the city’s history, at a resort on Mount Erciyes recently. While we enjoyed the last snow of the season on Mount Erciyes together, Özhaseki shared his impressive vision of turning the city into a brand name in tourism using mostly hidden jewel Mount Erciyes. In fact, I realized during the trip that his groundwork plans of converting Turkey’s Mount Erciyes into the world’s second leading winter tourism center after the European Alps was partially fulfilled with restaurants, hotels, social clubs and ski slopes already in operation.

The city has developed a master plan for winter sports at a total cost of 275 million euros and spent 76 million euros so far from the city budget to lay down the infrastructure, which includes 40 kilometers of ski slopes, a parking lot with a 2,500-vehicle capacity, eight hotels, six ski lift units and snow-making machines covering a 75,000-square-meter area. As part of the second stage of the project, the city tendered 20 resort complexes to private investors in May 2011, and their construction is going on as scheduled. Once the project is completed, the total ski slopes will reach 200 kilometers, and bed capacity will increase to 5,000.

The gondola ski lift at Hacılar Gate — some two-and-a-half kilometers long — already hosts 25,000 to 30,000 visitors every weekend. Recalling that Kayseri has exported $1.5 billion worth of goods in 2011, mostly furniture, machinery, textiles, metals and household appliances, the Kayseri mayor stated that he can earn more money from winter tourism than manufacturing exports bring once the Mount Erciyes project is fully implemented by 2014.

Özhaseki predicts the winter sports at Erciyes will create some 4,000 jobs for the people of Kayseri and will bring 200 million euros in revenue annually. He also plans to utilize the resorts in the off-winter season for conventions and training camps for sporting clubs. The city hired Austrian company ATC Consultants, a leading mountain resort development company, to determine the feasibility of a master project of sustainable winter tourism with private-public partnerships, including civil society as well as small and medium-sized enterprises.

The mayor says it was important for Kayseri to work with brand names in laying the infrastructure work on the mountain because winter tourists look for company logos known worldwide when picking destinations. That is why, for example, the city contracted different parts of the project to an Austrian company Doppelmayr Seilbahnen, the world market leader in constructing ropeways and cable cars; Italian Snowstar Spa, a manufacturer of snowmaking systems and ropeways; Italian TechnoAlpin, the global market leader in snowmaking know-how; and Italian firm Leitner Ropeways, known for making quality suspended cable cars, incline lifts, chairways, ropeways and ski lifts.

The project also generated contracts for a number of local companies, especially in the construction and energy sectors. Özhaseki believes that international experience and know-how brought with these master projects in Erciyes will enhance the capacity of local Turkish companies in the ski resort development area. “Just the other day, I visited the resort with a local businessman who was manufacturing steel cables. He said he could provide much better quality steel cable for suspension lifts at a much more competitive price compared to the international firm that laid these,” Özhaseki explained. He also claims that Erciyes and other projects in the city will improve the capacity of the service sector in Kayseri.

Like the Davos meetings in Switzerland or the European Forum Alpbach in Austria, the Kayseri mayor is also planning to introduce “Erciyes Meetings” here on Mount Erciyes with a peak point of 3,916 meters in the heartland of Turkey. The city boasts a busy international airport that saw 1.2 million passengers last year, a quarter of them international travelers. It can accommodate large 737 jets and is only half an hour drive from the mountain. Since President Abdullah Gül is from Kayseri and Turkish clout in global platforms is on the rise, Özhaseki strongly believes it can make “Erciyes Meetings” high profile events in the region and the world.

The mountain project is not the only attraction Kayseri presents to visitors. A project called Anatolian Wonderland (Anadaolu Harikalar Dünyası in Turkish) aims to turn Kayseri into a tourism hub. The wonderland will feature a 185-acre-lot theme park that offers water sports, a roller coaster, horseback riding, a 1,200-person capacity convention center, museums, sporting complexes, a large zoo and an ice rink.

Özhaseki was also successful in convincing political bosses in Ankara to get permission to open a fourth university in Kayseri after proposing that the city will not get a dime from the Treasury but rather build the university with locally raised funds. Now Kayseri is the only city in the country after İstanbul, Ankara and İzmir to have four universities. The foundation he established for this university under the name of Abdullah Gül has already raised enough capital to build the school. Özhaseki believes that the university will turn the city into an educational hub for students, contributing immensely to the local economy.

The city also solved public transportation problems in the downtown area in 2009 by introducing a light-rail tram system, furnished by Italian maker AnsaldoBreda, along a 17.8-kilometer line. It is expanding further to cover distant neighborhoods in the city as well. Tram lines are connected to other parts of the city with low-emission natural gas-powered buses for long distances or rent-a-bicycle stations for short distances. It modernized its multi-purpose sporting arena in 2009 by building the 32,500-seat capacity Kadir Has Stadium.

Most importantly, Özhaseki has financed many of these landmark projects by using public-private partnership schemes that included built-operate-transfer (BOT), fundraising and donor campaigns and voluntary contributions. This explains why in 2011 the city had a budget surplus. It spent only TL 322 million out of a total budget of TL 515 million. For instance, Özhaseki explains that the city put only TL 100 million into the Anatolian Wonderland project, while financing TL 70 million through the BOT method. “We have no outstanding debt on the city finance sheets,” he says.

Mayor Özhaseki says he does not plan to run for a fifth term, but he does not need to. As the entrepreneurship and venturous spirit is deeply embedded in the merchant genes of the Kayseri people, his legacy will surely be carried on by someone else. The city is already known for being a major manufacturing hub, but now it is on the way to becoming a key tourism hub as well.

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