WARSAW — The bankrupt Gdansk shipyard--birthplace of the Solidarity union movement that brought democracy to Poland and helped topple communism throughout Eastern Europe--has found a buyer, to the dismay of many Poles.
A fierce debate is raging here over whether the expected sale of the shipyard's entire assets represents the ignominious death of the historic facility or its rebirth in a form fit to survive in the global market economy.
The buyer--a consortium headed by another Polish shipyard, Stocznia Gdynia--insists that it will continue to produce large ships at Gdansk as part of its bid to become Europe's biggest shipbuilder.
But opponents of the deal worry that the shipyard may be shut down and its prime waterfront real estate turned over to commercial development. Another oft-expressed fear is that German investors will somehow get control of the facility, despite denials that any foreign capital is involved in the purchase.
The nationalistic fervor surrounding critics' complaints was reflected in the raising of a black flag with the word "Traitors" at the shipyard gate after a bankruptcy judge announced his approval of the deal last week.
"We have lost the shipyard," Boleslaw Hutyra, head of a citizens group called the Social Committee to Save the Gdansk Shipyard and the Shipping Industry, declared after the court decision, which has been appealed. "We will lose Poland if the politicians don't come to their senses."
Estimates of the sales price, which has not been announced, range from $20 million to $90 million.
The shipyard is 60% state-owned and 40% employee-owned, but because it is bankrupt, its shares are worthless. It is selling its assets to raise funds to repay creditors.
Janusz Szlanta, the president of Stocznia Gdynia, insisted at a news conference Thursday that the Gdansk facility has a bright future.
"Our proposal to buy the Gdansk shipyard is a result of macroeconomic trends in the world," Szlanta said. "We hope within a few years to have combined annual sales of over $1 billion."
Union leaders at the shipyard have sharply criticized the planned sale--yet have given some indications that they may reluctantly accept it.
The shipyard got into trouble partly because of the new free-market environment that Solidarity did so much to create.
After the 1989 turn toward democracy and capitalism, the Gdansk facility was slow to change precisely because of its impeccable political credentials.
Government financial support was used partly to ensure workers' benefits rather than to push through tough reforms that less prestigious facilities such as the Gdynia shipyard had to endure in order to survive. At Gdynia, for example, sales per employee soared from $18,369 in 1993 to $45,722 last year.
When Gdansk woke up, it was too late.
The prospective new owner plans to invest up to $100 million over the next dozen years to modernize the Gdansk facility and boost production, Szlanta said.
Although it will emphasize shipbuilding, Szlanta acknowledged that a prime section of the 450-acre facility, located near Gdansk's old town district, will probably be put to other use.
Ela Kasprzycka of The Times' Warsaw Bureau contributed to this report.