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Sister Cities

By Jim Sack

Fort Wayne Reader

2012-05-21


We now have a Chinese sister city. Here is some of the back story.

Over the past two years Fort Wayne has been “courted,” according to one of the leaders of the sister city movement here, by two Chinese cities. Delegations have come and gone and the elected and appointed leaders of our community, eager to create ties with booming China, finally proposed to Taizhou, a coastal city with a big harbor, burgeoning economic prowess and a gorgeous promotional video.

The courtship was consummated in early May with a formal signing of vows in the Mayor’s suite in Citizens’ Square. It was attended by the smiling founder of our 35-year adventure with sister cities, as well as many newcomers who are charged with moving Fort Wayne’s economic development future in to a much higher gear. There were so many Chinese in the room that it was hard to tell who was hosting the event.

During the signing ceremony we learned that the highest levels of Chinese leadership issued an edict that all Chinese cities would find themselves an America partner, and quickly. Our local sister cities leader added that Chinese representatives were fairly swarming the last gathering of the America Sister Cities International with business cards in hand.

And, over the past two years, Fort Wayne and Taizhou decided to tie the knot. The signing ceremony was a sort of wedding, an official signing of declarations of good intentions and an exchange of gifts with proud parents, village elders and the relatives of Fort Wayne’s other “wives” in attendance.

We are polygamists in the style of the Ottoman sultan — if this is a wedding then we added the Chinese bride to our harem. Already, Fort Wayne is “married” to a stunning German girl, a vivacious Pole and a graceful Japanese. In the world of international relations sleeping around is encouraged, and the more the merrier.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower founded the sister city movement in the 1950s. He had led the D-Day Invasion and witnessed the viciousness of war, and wanted to build connections with European countries and Japan to avoid another century of institutional murder. Fort Wayne’s first liaison was founded by Howard Chapman and others in 1976 when Takaoka, Japan came calling. Thousands of Fort Wayners have built relationships with thousands of folk in Japan.

Then, in 1990 we began flirting with Plock, Poland and Gera, Germany. Both cities were just coming out of 50 years of communist rule and Soviet oppression. Oppression is an apt description; the Soviets turned those two countries and our now sister cities into dumps. When this writer, the founder of the Gera relationship, arrived in Gera in late 1990 most of the downtown was boarded up, more Soviet soldiers walked the streets than Germans, the countryside was strewn with radioactive waste, and everything was gray and lifeless.

Both Gera and Plock now shine like the Santa Claus on PNC. They are both vibrant and energetic and we did our part to assist their transition.

Unfortunately, the city leaders have not done a very good job of exploiting the relationships with two of the biggest economies in the world, Germany and Japan. While hundreds of students have had their eyes opened by trips back and forth, our business community has done next to nothing to build ties. While our police department has created a remarkable relationship with the Gera PD, our Chamber and the other economic development entities have, heretofore, passed on the chance to bring a German company or a Japanese manufacturer to Fort Wayne, or to promote our products to their manufacturers.

This time may be different for three reasons: Mayor Tom Henry, Tom Herr and John Sampson.

Unlike his immediate predecessor, Mayor Henry has keen insight into the values of the sister city programs. He has been to Gera and pushed the glories of Fort Wayne commerce and our lifestyle. I watched him work that city on behalf of Fort Wayne. Just after the last election, he went to Taizhou to personally lead the effort to create a strong business link with the red hot Chinese economy.

Now, finally, he is supported in his effort by John Sampson, who runs the Northeast Indiana Economic Development Partnership. Sampson gets it. He is a business leader who plans fully to exploit the pioneering ties with Taizhou, and Gera and Plock, and Takaoka. Mr. Sampson told The Reader his dreams for the relationships include the words jobs, jobs, jobs a dozen times. It is his mandate.

The Mayor and Mr. Sampson are supported by Tom Herr, a lawyer in the same firm as the venerable Howard Chapman, the patriarch of the sister cities movement in Fort Wayne. Herr is very smart, organized and politically astute. He has stabilized Fort Wayne Sister Cities, Inc. and is carefully building the organization to be the best program in America. Thanks to Howard Chapman’s largess and good heart FWSSI has a $600,000 travel fund to help students (and only students) visit each sister, a fund that is the envy of every other sister program in the country.

And, therein lies the rub: over the budget cutting years from which we are about to emerge, council and the mayor’s office have rendered the travel budget to a thin broth, about enough to buy five tickets to Cedar Point. Given the city is awash in inheritances, surpluses and the Daniels Goof Fund it would make sense to invest quite a bit more in international economic development.

The point of travel, especially to our sisters, is to open one’s eyes to new possibilities, new ideas and new concepts, those “aha” moments. Every smart family sends their kids backpacking in Europe as part of their education. Every smart city should have money to send planners, officials and council members to observe what Gera and Plock, Takaoka and, now, Taizhou have done with their cities. There is so much to learn there and to apply here. Given that Taizhou is nearly 4,000 years old and has a 1,000 year old temple, they may have an insight or two that we can put to work.

The cost is small, the gain so great.

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