There is just sea and sand at the northernmost point in Germany. The North Sea horizon looks up close and yet far away, and there are more seagulls than people at the Elbow peninsula.
Thomas Diedrichsen’s family has lived on this remote corner of the island of Sylt for generations. On a recent afternoon he and his wife Conni, his father-in-law Peter and half a dozen other relatives sat down for apple pie, coffee, and some of the island’s own sparkling water at a rustic inn.
A publisher from Berlin once wanted to buy his homestead “Uthörn” and turn it into a golf course, but Mr. Diedrichsen, now 80, turned the offer down. “Sylt is still Sylt here,” he said. “We love it and so do our regular visitors.”
About 15 kilometers south in the hamlet of Wenningstedt, business man Jürgen Gosch – the uncrowned king of Sylt – sat in the corner of this newest and most stylish seafood restaurant, on the bluff. “Turbot with fried potatoes is our special today, and the customers are gobbling, er, eating it out of our hands,” he said, pleased.
Mr. Gosch’s restaurant empire now has 1,000 employees, 34 locations stretching across Germany from Sylt to Munich, a fish processing plant and a fleet of seven trucks.
And the 73-year-old seafood entrepreneur, trained as mason, wants more: More fish, more customers, more real estate, in short, more Gosch.
And these are the extremes that make Sylt what it is: the sleepy idyll of the Elbow peninsula and the business mania of Mr. Gosch. Up until now, they have existed here side-by-side.
But Sylt is in crisis. For three years the number of visitors has dropped. The number of overnight stays declined over this timeframe from 6.7 to 6.4 million. Dirk Erdmann, the second generation islander running the Hotel Rungholt in Kampen, said: “The drop has been so severe, that you have to think seriously about its cause.”
The local population has also been dwindling for years. In 2007, more than 21,000 people still lived on the island full-time. In 2013, there were fewer than 18,000. The free magazine “Sylt Impuls” says the island “has pronounced economic and quality problems.”
The result is that the image of Sylt as an island of the rich and beautiful is suffering, and the situation and mood along the narrow spit of land is tense. So tense, that the woman who had served as mayor of Westerland on Sylt for 23 years, Petra Reiber, decided she could no longer continue. “It is back-breaking work,” she said. “I want my personal life back.”
The search for her successor is shaping up to be difficult. Because being the mayor of Westerland, Sylt’s largest settlement, is no dream job. The highly public position pays a salary of about €6,000 a month, is responsible for 300 employees, and is incredibly difficult. In order to find candidates, the local government has advertised in German newspapers nationally.
Now, just before the application deadline of October 27, there are four candidates: Bernd Reinartz of the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) – chancellor Angela Merkel’s party, Nikolas Häckel, a center-left Social Democrat (SPD) that are currently in a governing coalition with the CDU on a national level. In additon to that, there are two independent candidates, Robert Wagner from the western German city of Aachen and Gabriele Pauli, a former county commissioner from Bavaria – well-known in Germany for her publicity-seeking ways.
Both camps – those for keeping island idyllic and those for more progress – deeply love Sylt. But the time for peaceful coexistence appears over
The new island manager must above all be able to unite Sylt. That may sound funny when talking about an island, but it is not. There are Sylt natives, those who have moved here, and those with vacation homes on the island. The 99-square-kilometer island is also divided administratively. The mayor of Westerland is only the administrative head of the municipality of Sylt, and that includes Westerland and Rantum and Sylt Ost with Keitum, Tinnum and Munkmarsch. The remaining municipalities are independent.
The boosters of Sylt’s economy include many small business leaders. Mr. Gosch, the head of the seafood chain and the hotelier Mr. Erdmann are only two examples.
“I don’t want to fight, I want to make decisions!” said Mr. Gosch. This apolitical attitude of the business leaders has until now served Sylt well. Thanks to ambassadors such as Gosch, Sylt became a brand name in Germany. The real estate market, which had been doing well for a long time, recently exploded because of low interest rates.
But Calle Schmidt is someone who looks at the progress of Sylt with a critical eye. His windsurfing school in Munkmarsch is a sort of Woodstock on the island. A self-made sign with the description of the “first windsurfing school in Europe since 1972,” leads the way. Mr. Schmidt is a self-made man. Trained in advertising, he introduced windsurfing to Sylt and therefore to Germany. He built an artificial cove in which he teaches windsurfing and sailing.
He does not like how Sylt has progressed. “It is getting more and more like a big city,” he said. “Look at the commercial zone in Tinnum. There are large home improvement stores and discounters there.” In the past, doors on the island were left open, the laundry hung on lines outside, and everyone knew everyone else. Today, he said, everything has become “larger, more expensive and tonier!”
Heinz Wieda, on the other hand, likes the business hustle and bustle. At first glance he does not appear to be a real estate agent. His recipe for success, which has helped him do well next to property companies such as German brokerage Engel & Völkers and the real estate divisions of banks, is that he is unpretentious and sees himself as providing a service. “I do everything for my clients,” he said. “I read their electricity meters, put their garbage cans out, teach landlord liability and I am also always reachable.”
Mr. Wieda said he can’t listen to the talk of a sell-out of the island anymore. And he laughs off the dissatisfaction of some native residents who say they can’t afford Sylt anymore. They are often at fault themselves, said Mr. Wieda. He told the story of a garbage man, who sold the thatched roof house he inherited for €1 million and then bought a penthouse on the mainland for €300,000. He wanted to commute back and forth to the island. After a year he was standing in Mr. Wieda’s office again. “He was completely unhappy and wanted to buy a small apartment on Sylt,” Mr. Wieda said.
What Mr. Wieda stresses that both camps – those for keeping the island idyllic and those for more progress – deeply love Sylt. But the time for peaceful coexistence appears over.
Tough times are ahead for the future mayor of paradise.
Tanja Kewes is Handelsblatt’s chief reporter. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org