Pereira: CIVISMO 101

How Pereira’s residents built an airport themselves

No money to build an airport? We’ll do it ourselves!

To understand Pereira’s ascent, a key word to know is civismo, or civic action. Civismo explains how residents banded together to build the city’s airport in the 1940s and the sports complex in the 1970s, contributing everything from jewelry to muscle power in order to develop the projects.

Mauricio Vega drew on that civic heritage in the early 2010s, when the city faced 24 percent unemployment in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. Vega, then president of the Pereira Chamber of Commerce, saw a lifeline in tourism and a convention center, but the city lacked cash.

Here’s what happened in Vega’s own words, translated from Spanish and lightly edited, in an inspiring effort that earned the first award ever for a Colombian Chamber of Commerce from the World Chambers Federation:

We do things here in a very special way. Our grandparents wanted an airport, so they went to the department capital, which then was Manizales, and said, “Look, we have land we can buy cheap. We need your support to go to the national government.” And Manizales said, “What airport? You’re very small. If we get an airport, it’ll be here.” And our ancestors said, “We’ll do it ourselves.” And they did.

Rich families donated the land. Women gave up their rings, necklaces, earrings, silver candlesticks… And the townspeople turned out to public invitations (convites) on weekends with picks and shovels to build the airport. There are wonderful photos of a chain of children passing rocks, one by one from the river, all the way up to the airport. They built the airport through enormous effort and gave it to the city, which is why we have the only international airport in Colombia that doesn’t belong to the national government.

We built San Jorge Hospital earlier in the same way… There was even a short article in The Times of London about it, saying that a remote town in a distant country in South America offers a lesson on how to get projects built through civismo…. And the people did it again and built the Olympic Village for the national sports championship in 1974.

So, in the early 2010s, Pereira had 24 percent unemployment, one of the highest rates in the country. About 60 percent of households said they had a family member living overseas. Between earthquakes, low coffee prices, the global financial crisis, and violence elsewhere in Colombia, the situation was critical. And from all our research, we saw the solution in tourism. UNESCO had just declared the region a World Heritage Site. And I thought: How can we become a tourist destination, if we don’t have anywhere to host conferences and conventions?

And in my despair, with no money, I remembered our history. I asked our PR people to design a campaign to raise funds for the project… and they came up with The First Brick. The idea was, recalling the civismo of our ancestors, to invite citizens to donate the first brick to build the convention center. Back then, a brick cost about 500 Colombian pesos, or maybe 10 [U.S.] cents – not much.

So, we began with an event for all the politicians to get their support. We got initial donations from businesses active with the Chamber, and the ball started rolling. Within two months, the city was full of signs for The First Brick. Then, we started going to schools and telling the story of the airport – I must have visited 40 or 50 schools— and asking everyone for 500 pesos. We’d take the donations – sometimes literally a brick – and write down the donor’s name. And we promised when the convention center was built, we’d have a civismo wall and list all the names of every person who donated.

We raised so much money from citizens that politicians couldn’t say no. The governor said, “I’ll put in millions,” the regional Council donated, and things snowballed. The federal government joined in. President [ Juan Manuel] Santos fell in love with the project, came to Pereira, and gave us 15 billion pesos. And with that, we could start to build … We inaugurated the convention center on Feb. 1, 2016 on the 50th anniversary of the department of Risaralda.

Someone from Colombia who worked at CNN en Español told journalist Ismael Cala the story, and I went to Miami to speak on his show. I was so proud of Pereira…

There’s an international group of Chambers of Commerce that holds a conference every two years. In 2016, it was in Australia. They hold a contest for best Chamber projects, and we always compete. That year, they called us to say we were finalists in the “unconventional” category, and they asked us to come to the conference and defend our project. The presentation was in English, so I wrote out everything I had to say and practiced. About a week before the trip, I said, “I think the most beautiful part of this campaign was the participation of children.” So, someone on the PR team said, ‘Why don’t we find a child in Australia? There’s got to be someone there from Pereira with a child who can bring you a brick and share our message….’ So, we all started looking. Through Facebook, we found a couple in Sydney with an 8-year-old boy, so I went and met the child to build rapport. We went to lunch and a park, we gave him a gift, and we showed him the auditorium where we’d speak.

After the presentation, the audience gave us a standing ovation, and some people cried. The boy was perfect. He said something in English like, “With this brick, I give you the hopes of the children of Colombia.” And we won first place! It was the first time a Chamber of Commerce from Colombia won an international competition. Even President Santos tweeted out congratulations. What a celebration! That prize is now in the convention center.

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