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If you build it they will come: a field of e-dreams in Barcelona

If you build it they will come: a field of e-dreams in Barcelona

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) – On a bright blue day the view from James Hare’s office at eDreams.com entails bobbing sailboats, yachts and a cruise ship anchored in the harbor.

Hare is the 32-year-old president of eDreams.com, an online travel agency attracted by Barcelona’s charms and high-tech savvy.

“There are few places in the world where you have a solid infrastructure and beautiful location on the Mediterranean,” said Hare, a San Francisco transplant who formerly designed software in the Ukraine.

“For me, this is IT!” he says.

IT stands for information technology, the very thing the Catalonia regional government and its capital Barcelona are trying to capture in an attempt to become a high-tech center of Europe.

Within the European Union, Catalonia’s promise has pushed it from eighth to third in attracting investment – behind only London and Paris, according to Ernst and Young.

Barcelona is forging ahead with a major transformation project for the second time in less than 10 years. Not since rebuilding the city for the 1992 Summer Olympics have the regional and city governments pulled together.

The regional government has set aside $1 billion to upgrade the city’s communications infrastructure to the fiber optic cables needed to nurture broadband expansion.

While London is a world financial capital and Paris is known as the seat of culture, afficionados think Barcelona is a subtle blend of both cities and more. It offers a lower cost living, a vibrant art scene, a more temperate climate and a spicy night life.

For business, the deal is sweet: tax breaks for research and development centers and $135 million in regional government spending on a new 115-block technology zone – it’s been dubbed 22@BCN. The ”22” stands for special building regulations and BCN is the Barcelona airport.

The expenditure has spurred the city’s economy, government officials and businessmen say.

Government statistics indicate some 70,000 new jobs related to high technology have been created in and around Barcelona since 1996. The Catalonia Office of Foreign investment counted 1,000 new high technology businesses established during the same period.

Partially based on generous tax breaks, Javier Perez Tenessa, 34-year-old eDreams.com co-founder and chief executive officer, picked Barcelona as the headquarters to oversee company offices in Italy, the United Kingdom and France

Among bigger companies that have settled in Barcelona in the past 12 months are Spanish Internet portal giant Terra Lycos Inc. and leatherXchange.com, which moves some $110 billion annually in the business-to-business fur trade.

Generous subsidies and tax breaks have also drawn high tech research and development operations of companies including Sony (digital TV and DVD), Samsung Electronics (cellular phones), and Nokia (wireless).

Catalonia has long been Spain’s leading industrial region, slightly ahead of the landlocked capital Madrid, 375 miles to the west. Long known for its hard, old economy staples like petroleum, papermaking and industrial manufacturing, Catalonia wants to ride the digital wave by taking advantage of its proximity to the continent, but stressing its quality of life.

City leaders are quick to advertise things like a 15-minute ride from downtown to the international airport, an efficient public transit system and the pleasant Mediterranean ambiance.

Carlos Mallo, director of the Barcelona branch of the London-based investment firm 3i, said his company will invest $28 million in five local technology companies this year because of the region’s nourishing commitment to the new economy.

“There are great universities here and Barcelona has the capacity to become a Silicon Valley,” Mallo said. Of the 200,000 registered university students in Catalonia, 52,000 are pursuing technology degrees.

Victor Canivell, vice president of Aspective, an e-business application service provider, says that as more homegrown engineers find work here, companies will not have to rely so heavily on foreign workers.

“From the standpoint of geography and infrastructure, Barcelona is the perfect place for us to expand,” he said.

Copyright © 2001, Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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