World

An Italian Village Hit the Jackpot. Will That Save or Destroy It?

LIVEMMO, Italy — The only full-time employee of Livemmo, a secluded mountain village of 196 residents in northern Italy, has a lot on his to-do list.

At 7:26 on a recent morning, he stamped his timecard, lifted the blinds and straightened up the town hall office. He drove the yellow school bus over fog-shrouded roads, picking up little children in winter hats from surrounding hamlets, beeping at the curves slick with red autumn leaves and taking it slow around the bell towers. Back in the office, he paid a bill and answered emails. Then he turned to his other task — helping the village spend nearly 20 million euros (nearly $21 million) earmarked by Italy to save Livemmo from oblivion.

“It’s a huge job to spend all this money,” Marino Zanolini, 57, said of the bounty. “At the end, if something goes wrong, you know whose fault it will be.”

Marino Zanolini is Livemmo’s only full-time municipal employee. He drives the school bus in the morning. Credit…Alessandro Grassani for The New York Times
Livemmo is a secluded mountain village with 196 residents.Credit…Alessandro Grassani for The New York Times

This year, Livemmo beat out dozens of other villages in the Lombardy region for a share of about €200 billion in Covid recovery funds set aside for Italy by the European Union. Italy has one of the oldest populations in Europe, and the combination of its paltry birthrate and the increased longevity of its booming population of older people has created an economic and existential crisis that has vexed successive governments.

Italy has allocated €420 million in relief funds to reverse the aging, and vanishing, of 21 of its most threatened small villages — one in each major region or province. Livemmo, known for its mountain walks, cow pastures and carnival parade featuring characters like a woman holding a man in a basket, won its region’s reinvigoration lotto with a proposal to evolve into a vibrant tourist destination.

Its pitch included spending for decent Wi-Fi (€366,000), expanded tourist lodgings in its centuries-old stone homes (€549,000) and a network of expanded bike paths (€5.86 million). It plans to convert a dirt field surrounded by yellow and blue plastic seats nailed into logs into a new sports complex with a synthetic turf, parking and locker rooms (€1.22 million). It foresees the purchase of private warehouses to be converted into centers for local cheese, honey and woodworking artisans (€3.03 million).

“It’s a unique, once-in-a-lifetime and unimaginable opportunity,” Giovanmaria Flocchini, the mayor of the town that includes Livemmo, said of the grant money. Credit…Alessandro Grassani for The New York Times
The proposal has budgeted incentives to draw more families, businesses and “creative start-ups in the sector of contemporary art, with particular focus on the theme of wood.” Credit…Alessandro Grassani for The New York Times

To make up for the loss of its lone doctor, who is retiring at the end of the month, it has also proposed telemedicine bracelets that monitor the vitals of the village’s aging residents (€183,000). It has budgeted incentives to draw more families, businesses and “creative start-ups in the sector of contemporary art, with particular focus on the theme of wood” (€1.46 million).

“It’s a unique, once-in-a-lifetime and unimaginable opportunity,” said Giovanmaria Flocchini, the mayor of the town that includes the village of Livemmo. He considered the village part of a critical experiment for Italy, but also for aging societies across Europe, to prove that an influx of cash can save towns — and all of their cultural heritage and history — from depopulation and abandonment. “I feel doubly responsible,” he said. “If it fails for us, it fails for everybody.”

But the village needs to start spending the money no later than July and finish by June 2026. Mr. Zanolini, who has been working for Livemmo for nearly 30 years, and who likes to take lunch breaks at his parents’ house down the road, is worried about the tens of thousands of documents in the planning phase, and then the tens of thousands of more contracts to organize, digitally sign and pay out in the payment phase.

“Everything has to go through the town hall,” he said, adding, “Ninety percent of the time I’m alone.”

Daniela Guffi at the village’s only grocery store. Credit…Alessandro Grassani for The New York Times
Part of the proposal is to convert plans to convert a dirt field into a new sports complex with a synthetic turf, parking and locker rooms.Credit…Alessandro Grassani for The New York Times

Mr. Flocchini, who is also the president of a local association of administrators who helped draft the proposal, is negotiating with the regional and national governments to let him use €800,000 of the funds over four years to hire professional consultants. In a part of the country with high employment, he is finding it hard to lure locals away from solid jobs 20 miles away for temporary jobs closer to home.

After a brief walk around the village, of the warehouses he envisioned as cultural centers and the 17th-century stone homes he imagined as charming tourist lodgings, the mayor returned to the town hall and watched Mr. Zanolini show a resident how to snap on the lid of her new garbage pail so it would not break in the cold. The mayor admired the town’s employee as a jack-of-all-trades, “but,” he said, “he can’t do this — it is not his job.”

As is the case with many small towns across Italy, he added, “I don’t deny that we’re having a tough time managing this.”

The deeper challenge, though, may be that a significant, and senescing, portion of the population does not want the money in the first place.

“There is not a lot of enthusiasm in one part of the population,” the mayor said, adding, “You can’t change the minds of 80-year-olds.”

Or some 70-year-olds.

“My fear is that the whole town will be changed. We’ll be invaded by people we don’t know,” Graziella Scuri, 73, an owner of one of Livemmo’s five restaurants, said as she spooned out homemade casoncelli pasta doused in butter. She added that a defining character trait of the hard-working, and often isolated locals was “we’re a little closed.”

The mayor considered the village part of a critical experiment for Italy, but also for aging societies across Europe, to prove that an influx of cash can save towns.Credit…Alessandro Grassani for The New York Times
“My fear is that the whole town will be changed. We’ll be invaded by people we don’t know,” Graziella Scuri, 73, an owner of one of Livemmo’s five restaurants. Credit…Alessandro Grassani for The New York Times

Her son, Daniele Meschini, 38, questioned the wisdom of trying to transform a town of taciturn and aging mountain dwellers who cared most about having a doctor on call into a tourist attraction. “All these people who want to come look at goats!” he said. “I grew up with goats so I find it absurd.”

A skepticism bordering on grouchiness imbued the small, steep streets sparsely populated by old people pausing for breathers by the church or taking in the view of the valley as cattle bells clanged in the surrounding hills. As Alessandro Bettinsoli, dressed in a cycling uniform, rolled his bike out of a garage and over cobbled river stones, he ridiculed all of the money spent on the new bike paths.

“I’m the only one who uses it,” he said.

Mr. Zanolini, Livemmo’s municipal worker, is worried about the tens of thousands of documents the plans involve.Credit…Alessandro Grassani for The New York Times
The village hopes to turn its town hall cellar, currently filled with scrap metal, gas tanks and broken doors and baskets, into a showroom for local wines and cheeses. Credit…Alessandro Grassani for The New York Times

About five years ago, with Livemmo worried about its nearly nonexistent birthrate and the loss of civic life, the town invested in a small grocery store. Daniela Guffi, 27, moved to the village to work in it because, she said, her mother came from Livemmo, she loved the mountains and thought it would be a good place to raise a family. As she finished stocking sambuca bottles above the counter, she said that she hoped for the best, but that “we’re all a little skeptical because we know so little.”

The village had its charms, Ms. Guffi said, and tourists from Brescia and Milan, desperate to escape climate change’s extreme heat, sought refuge here in the summers. But year round, she said, “It’s hard to be young here. In a couple is one thing. Alone is another.”

Partly out of necessity, Mr. Flocchini has pinned his hopes on Livemmo’s young, and families in particular, confident that some of them might buy the restaurants from aging owners, or start businesses and have more children to keep the local school afloat.

Giulia Turrini, 33, who has two young children, operates a bed-and-breakfast in the historic town hall building. The village hopes to turn the stone cellar, currently filled with scrap metal, gas tanks and broken doors and baskets, into a showroom for local wines and cheeses. “The people my age will get the most out of this,” she said of the government money. “The older generation is more negative. They fear change.”

The village has also budgeted millions of euros for new bike paths. Credit…Alessandro Grassani for The New York Times
Mr. Flocchini with a map showing projects the village is hoping to launch with the money. Credit…Alessandro Grassani for The New York Times

Across the street, Sabrina Bresciani, 28, stepped out of her house holding her daughter, Aurora, who she said was the only child born in the village in 2021. “I hope it’s spent well,” Ms. Bresciani said of the money. “Also for the next generation.”

That new generation returned home on the school bus again driven by Mr. Zanolini later in the day. As Erica Scuri, 40, waited for the arrival of her 5-year-old daughter, Anita, she worried the almost €20 million was “a little wasted.”

“Look around,” she said, “everything is missing.”

A few minutes later, Mr. Zanolini dropped Anita off with a friendly wave and pulled off into the narrow streets. Ms. Scuri pondered whether her daughter would stay in the village or move elsewhere when she grew up. A voice erupted from below.

“Here!” Anita shouted.

Partly out of necessity, Mr. Flocchini has pinned his hopes on Livemmo’s young, and families in particular.Credit…Alessandro Grassani for The New York Times

Gaia Pianigiani contributed reporting from Siena, Italy.

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