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Politics

Kostas Bakoyannis Dynamism on Display on THI Webinar

ATHENS – Athens’ new Mayor Kostas Bakoyannis was the featured guest on the 5th edition of The Hellenic Initiative’s Digital Speaker Series Live on July 8. The event was hosted by THI’s Executive Director Peter Poulos and moderated by Milwaukee TV anchor/reporter Pete Zervakis.

Poulos, who moved to Athens in 2007, set the tone by noting that after Bakoyannis’ June 2019 election “you immediately sensed there was someone in the mayor’s office who cared about Athens.” Poulos urged listeners to follow the mayor on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Bakoyannis thanked THI and referring to the initiatives of his office and the Mitsotakis government, said “after the years of crisis … we hope that you can be as proud of us as we are proud of you.”

He began his talk by describing his bold initiative, the Grand Walk, an expansion of Athens’s pedestrian network unifying the city’s major archaeological sites, calling it “a major urban reinvention” that addresses the fact that Athens is the EU capital with the least green space and the most cars on the road per capita. “We are trying to bring a new balance” after securing funding from the EU, the Greek state, and private donations.

What impresses many expats – in addition to acting on the basis of studies of EU and U.S. cities – is that they are beginning with temporary, not permanent structures and will make adjustment. “We actually test the intervention” and assess the data about traffic, citizens’ responses, etc. That approach “ignites a conversation across the city, he said.

The evaluations are expected by the end of November, with permanent public works beginning early 2021. Success is hopefully foreshadowed by the new Omonia Square with its magnificent fountain – praised by Zervakis and already beloved by Athenians and visitors – which Bakoyannis’ administration delivered this year.

Bakoyannis emphasized that the fountain was just a  part of redevelopment of the entire Omonia area, slowed down by COVID-19 but moving forward again, that includes 20 hotels.

He said other neighborhoods, each with a unique character, are being addressed and more projects are in the works, and invited the Diaspora to help build on Athens’s great cultural brand name by also conveying how enjoyable the city is.

Partnership with the citizens and cultural institutions groups and grass roots input was an important theme in his presentation, Bakoyannis crediting his city’s “new self-confidence and dynamism to the ingenuity and resilience of the people themselves.”

But public sector initiatives are vital and the global media has spotlighted Bakoyannis programs like removing graffiti; the Athens is Back program – where stores offer website discounts to draw people back to Athens Centre; and a new h

omeless shelter for “400 people to live in dignity in humane conditions.” The city acted, he said, on “our moral duty, because we don’t want any Athenians left behind.” As part of their COVID-19 response they recreated the program that is now called Help at Home Plus, which sends social workers to the homes of at-risk people.

The new mayor is also excited about the Digital Reconstruction of city services – including an e-services portal where people can obtain documents from “a more citizen-friendly bureaucracy.” Bakoyannis’ team is turning COVID-era needs into opportunity. “A crisis is also an opportunity. We learned that the hard way in Greece … we are reinventing ourselves,” he said.

Bakoyannis’ presentation generated much excitement among webinar participants, who flooded THI with questions. One asked what can been done about Athens’ abandoned buildings – many worth preserving – and he replied there is now a working group “to come up with legislation allowing us to claim some type of eminent domain … not just for auctions, but to have the municipality invest in buildings in cooperation with the private sector.”

Bakoyannis highlighted the region’s mass transit progress by noting three new Metro stations opened this week, that the tram will reach Piraeus by early 2021, followed by more Metro stations there, and he noted progress towards Metro Line 4 that will connect much more of Athens.

Numerous participants asked how Greeks abroad can help and Bakoyannis said, “you are our ambassadors … spread the word Greece is actually changing and things are looking up.”

He emphasized that “you can also help by facilitating and bringing investors to Greece. There is a lot that can be done and a lot of money that can be made coming from America, so please consider us.” Bakoyannis explained “

there is a global race for talent, tourism, and investors. For many years Athens was absent,” but now Greece is on the map. “And I can share that after all these years, the Hellenikon development has begun … we have moved from words to deeds,” adding with an exclamation point: “It is an ideal moment to invest in Greece!”

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