July 23, 2007

Eskişehir posed to become Turkish Silicon Valley

Saturday, July 7, 2007


ESKİŞEHİR - Turkish Daily News

Eskişehir used to be a small town famed for it bitter snowy winters and a soft white mineral called Meershaum used to carve up surprisingly light smoking pipes. Today, when people in Turkey think of Eskişehir, what comes to mind is a bustling city with a tram, cafés along the banks of its river, parks, statues and the best place in Turkey to be a university student. Eskişehir – old city in Turkish – with its young population during the school period brings everything but old to mind.
This unique university town located three hours west of Ankara, has developed into a world class city thanks to Yılmaz Büyükerşen, mayor of the city since 1999 and Anadolu University's first rector. It should come as no surprise then, that Eskişehir's city and campus life are truly integrated.

“Eskişehir has grown substantially during my mayorship to the point that it has entirely engulfed the universities,” Büyükerşen told the Turkish Daily News.

Turkish convention has it that universities are established away from the city centers. As a result, students in Turkey are stuck in university residences or campuses and are disconnected from city life. However with its campus centrally located Anadolu and Osmangazi universities open their doors into the city's front yard so to speak.

Büyükerşen said that his biggest accomplishment as rector was the establishment of the Anadolu Open University in 1982, which gave the opportunity to thousands of Turks to get an education by distance learning. The Open University put Anadolu into the world's top 10 big universities with around one-and-a-half million students.

“I am the only rector whose signature has appeared most on diplomas in Turkey,” said Büyükerşen the first rector of Anadolu University. “By taking the latest technological improvements into consideration, my colleagues, who are presently in charge of Anadolu University's administration, have been working on education models through the Internet,” stated Büyükerşen. The university offers an “e-certificate” program to students, who have at least a high school degree, in the field of management. In addition, Turkish courses will be offered to foreigners wishing to learn Turkish on the Internet soon.

After sitting in the rector's chair at Anadolu University for over 10 years, Büyükerşen ventured into the arena of local politics. Former president of Turkey Bülent Ecevit, from Turkey's left, played a significant role in persuading him. Büyükerşen recalls Ecevit's words to him: “We would like to grant you a political life so that Turkey can benefit more from you,” Ecevit told him. Büyükerşen accepted the proposal since he wanted to eradicate problems he saw in the city, which had not been solved in the past. “I wanted to prove that without getting into the European Union, it is possible to establish a modern city that resembles those of developed European countries,” said Büyükerşen.

Now, people who visit and locals claim that Eskişehir has a feel of Vienna with its tram, and a hint of Venice with the gondola tour along the Porsuk river passing through the city center.

Büyükerşen prepared “the Eskişehir City Development Projects and Feasibility” plan to organize the city that faced infrastructure problems. At the time Turkey was financially recovering from both the dreadful 1999 Marmara earthquake and the 2001 economic crisis. So, in order to finance Eskişehir's city development he turned to the European Investment Bank and the Northern Countries Investment and secured funding from there.

On the top of Büyükerşen's Eskişehir plan and accomplishments as city mayor have been brand new transportation vehicles, urban planning, new drainage system, construction of waste management facilities, clean up of the Porsuk River. “We have been applying them with great success,” he said.

In addition, Büyükerşen transformed Eskişehir into a city of art and culture. The city boasts four theater stages, a symphony orchestra, an opera house, numerous statues and parks, and a youth center called Haller. All of these make Eskişehir a more sophisticated place to live and study. Reflecting the architecture of the Ottoman period, the historical wooden Odunpazarı houses have undergone renovation as well. Located in the city center, and painted different colors they will be used as guesthouses.

“If I get elected again and if I have a positive team that understands my vision better, I will keep on coming up with projects like these,” he said.

Currently, Büyükerşen has been working on a new project to reduce unemployment in Eskişehir. Vocational training will be given to unemployed people by turning their homes into workshops producing crafts. This project is particularly targeted toward women who stay at home.

Applying the Silicon Valley model to Eskişehir to propel it in the area of high technology through public-private partnerships was among Büyükerşen's goals, but he has not been able to realize it, due to political obstacles within the municipal assembly.

When Büyükerşen was re-elected in 2004 as a candidate of the Democratic Left Party (DSP) he faced an Assembly composed mostly of Justice and Development Party (AKP) delegates. “I tried to complete my projects with an overwhelming AKP opposition for four years. With their mentality, I won't be able to implement the Silicon Valley project this semester unfortunately,” said Büyükerşen.

However, what Büyükerşen has not been able to accomplish as mayor, Anadolu University has already put in motion.

Anadolu University's current rector Fevzi Sürmeli said that they have founded an advanced technological research center so that other businesses can get technical help from his university. He also explained that they promoted innovation among their staff and faculty and helped them to form their own businesses while working at the University.

“We allowed our colleagues to set up their own companies and to market and sell the products that they developed as a result of research,” Sürmeli told the TDN. “They obtained our full support and founded institutions in the industrial zone of Eskişehir,” he added.

Both the students and the local people of Eskişehir are content with the unique arrangement of the city as they can share social and cultural activities and the presence of the two universities has greatly contributed to the economy of the city.

“Along with the students, faculty and staff, Anadolu University contributes to the economy of Eskişehir with millions of YTL,” said Sürmeli.

The portrait of a natural born politician:

So, what lies ahead for Büyükerşen? He has climbed the ranks, from a college student drawing cartoons, to a short career in journalism, a professor's post, a long career as rector of one of Turkey's largest universities, to his current post as mayor. He admits that he has had numerous proposals to become a full force politician and people tell him that a career in politics will suit him.

“I'm an inventor and I would like to be known as an inventor. I can serve in any position for my country,” he said.

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