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21st Jul 2019

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A tourist's guide to EU-funded Amsterdam

  • "The Eye" film institute: €1.5m (Photo: Peter Teffer)

Start your visit to Amsterdam on the northern side of the Dutch capital's central train station by taking the free ferry across the IJ river.

As you approach the northern part of Amsterdam, you will see a large white building, which some say looks like a frog. "The Eye" film institute's new building, opened in 2012, cost around €38m. It received €1.5m of EU funding from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF).

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  • Hotel "The Exchange": €4.8m (Photo: Peter Teffer)

The ERDF has distributed more cash in 'Amsterdam Noord' - an area which because of its watery separation from the rest of Amsterdam was for a long time seen as not truly belonging to the city.

But several big industrial players departed the waterfront, leaving it open for new development. Housing cooperative Open Haard received €2.7m to modernise an area of mostly abandoned company buildings.

According to Bart Bozelie the project – which also received €10m in private investment – has helped put the northern district on the map. "The ERDF subsidy definitively contributed to that," he told EUobserver in an emailed statement. He said that the project would have gone ahead anyway without the ERDF subsidy, but then it would have had "a lower ambition level".

During the current funding period (ie 2014-2020), Amsterdam's Noord district is also benefiting from a €33m co-financing to develop economic activity in a city park.

The money will be used to renovate pavilions and two former gas stations. One former gas station, recently painted yellow, was already defaced with graffiti. The building is now used for neighbourhood activities like yoga, and as one passer-by told EUobserver, bicycle classes.

Biking is of course quintessentially Dutch, and you can also do it on EU-funded bike paths.

Head south-east to the Diemerbos forest, and you will be able to ride on what €119,386 of ERDF co-financing could buy. The project was carried out by Recreatie Noord-Holland, a company owned by the province of Noord-Holland.

Senior project manager Wim Roozenbeek told EUobserver by email that the money was used to connect Amsterdam with a neighbouring region. The project "apparently" met ERDF grant conditions, "which led to the decision to apply". He said that without the ERDF subsidy, a higher contribution from the province or from cities would have been needed.

While you are in the south-east of Amsterdam, visit World of Food, an indoors food court in a former parking garage.

The cooks producing multicultural street food desperately need all clientele they can get. World of Food opened in 2015, following a €418,800 ERDF subsidy.

It was advertised as offering employment to local entrepreneurs, but many of them have already left. "We are all disappointed," said one of them, who did not want to see his name in print. "If you let yourself be heard, then they will bully you," he said, referring to the private company that owned the place. The entrepreneur said that there had been mismanagement, leading to doubling purchases in ventilation and heating systems.

His story was corroborated by another, who confirmed that rent and service costs for the cooking units have skyrocketed, despite an initial promise that the first five years prices would remain stable.

"I have to pay €2,400 in rent, and €448 in monthly dues – but I have no idea what that money is spent on. You are not allowed to ask questions, just pay," he said.

The first noted that he had wanted to contact the "ERDF people" but that he had no idea who to turn to.

Despite the difficult situation for the entrepreneurs, the food court did manage to fulfil some societal goals.

"White people used to be afraid of [Amsterdam] south-east," said one of the entrepreneurs, referring to the large share of second-generation immigrants living there. "But the area's reputation has improved."

Churches and microbes

Returning to the centre of Amsterdam, you can start visiting some museums. In September 2014, the Micropia museum opened, which claims to be the only museum in the world devoted to the world of microbes. It is part of the Artis zoo, and received €2m in ERDF subsidies. Its spokeswoman told EUobserver that while the zoo is open about how many external subsidies it receives, it does not comment on how they are spent because that is something "between the subsidy provider and the recipient".

Opposite the zoo is the Dutch Resistance museum, which since October 2013 has a dedicated section for children, which was built with €300,000 of co-financing by the ERDF.

A short bike ride from here is the Our Lord in the Attic museum, which received €3.8m for a thorough renovation. The museum shows how in the sixteenth century catholic churches moved to residential houses and homes – the city had become Protestant, but non-Protestant religions were tolerated as long as they were not visible from the outside. The museum houses an actual church in the attic.

"We heard about this museum from our daughter, who went here two or three years ago," said Sarencki Dariusz, a Polish tourist. He noted that his country had also profited from EU investment in infrastructure like roads, but had no problems with richer regions receiving ERDF money. "Why not?" he said.

Added value?

But the projects do raise questions.

Is EU money really needed to set up museums in Amsterdam, a city that already is overflowing with tourists? Gerard de Boer is senior subsidies advisor for Amsterdam. He noted that there was a rationale for each project. The Our Lord in the Attic museum helped bring families to a neighbourhood that normally hosts those interested in the strip clubs and hookers. "It was important that the red-light district also began receiving a different type of tourists," said De Boer.

Birgit Buchner, director of the museum, confirmed that the museum attracts visitors that otherwise would not visit the red-light district. "This museum visitor causes few problems and adds diversity to the neighbourhood," she said in an email to EUobserver.

Buchner noted that the ERFD subsidy was "very important", but added it was very difficult to say what would have happened without it.

According to Eurostat figures, greater Amsterdam had a gross domestic product (GDP) in 2015 of almost €100bn. When dividing the Netherlands into 40 regions using the so-called NUTS 3 classification, greater Amsterdam is the region with the highest GDP – producing 14.5 percent of the country's output.

De Boer acknowledged that of course Amsterdam has a completely different economy than, for example, Bucharest, but stressed that the share of regional funding going to richer countries was much smaller.

"We use it to address deficits in our economy," he noted. In Amsterdam the ERDF money is used to reduce disparities within the city, rather than arrive at the end goal of EU regional policy: full cohesion between all regions. But that is allowed.

In effect, the money is used for classic regional policy. The question - what the added value was of receiving the money from an EU fund rather than a national one? - was something De Boer would rather not comment on.

EU-funded hotel

Anyway. You must be tired after such a long day in Amsterdam. Time to check in your hotel. The Damrak street, which connects the station with the Dam square, has eight on a strip of less than 50 metres, but what better place to stay than in boutique hotel "The Exchange", which markets itself as a "fashion hotel with rooms dressed liked models".

For years the Damrak street had a bad reputation, but it is being cleaned up.

In the ERDF period 2007-2013, a real estate company was granted two subsidies totalling at €6.2m to help buy 13 buildings and renovate them. In the same period, another €4.8m of ERDF money was granted as co-financing for the development of "The Exchange" hotel.

It is not the cheapest hotel in the street, but after spending the night here, you can say that you slept in a hotel part-financed by EU taxpayer money. However, the hotel's spokeswoman said she did not know the hotel had received EU funding.

This story was originally published in EUobserver's 2018 Regions & Cities Magazine.

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