A superficial observer might assume it’s a boondoggle. Arrogant Arlington elitists gallivanting around the globe on the unknowing taxpayer’s dime.
Fortunately, the sister city program is anything but, as I readily deduced when I swung by the 55th annual Sister City International conference held March 3-5 in Crystal City.
The big news from the three-day confab was the Arlington County Board’s announcement that it had cemented ties with a fifth sister city-the surprising choice of Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine.
That’s a three-and-a-half-century-old Carpathian mountain city (population 224,000 vs. Arlington’s 213,000). It joins the other four towns with which Arlington has conducted similar citizen-to-citizen friendly relations since the nationwide movement went local in 1993: Coyoacan, Mexico; Aachen, Germany; Reims, France; and San Miguel, El Salvador.
Like the 600 other American jurisdictions that engage sister cities, Arlington embraces it, according to organizers, to foster exchanges in arts and culture partnerships, economic development opportunities, educational and professional exchanges, and global tourism and visitation.
The conference, said Sister Cities International organization spokeswoman Kathleen McLaughlin, drew nearly 300 participants from 20 countries and was highlighted by a Friday night performance of Ukrainian folk dancers. The program “does attract culturally sensitive types of individuals who have a broader worldview,” she told me, though they aren’t necessarily confined to large urban entities-the sister city-participating town of Gilbert, Ark., has a population of 33.
I’d adjudge that the endeavor attracts an earnest and cosmopolitan individual-many retired Arlingtonians and students — who enjoys meeting and staying with not-always-English-speaking strangers and who is comfortable with unlikely juxtapositions such as sister cities Zomba, Malawi, and Urbana, Ill.
County board members tend to leap at the chance to reap public relations value from sister cities, and the international association does its best to provide a stage for the local hosts.
Arlington leaders justified the program in a fiscal 2004 county board budget proceeding as follows: “Arlington is one of the region’s most culturally diverse communities. The sharing of artistic, educational, recreational, scientific, political and cultural ideas with the citizens of Reims, Aachen, and Coyoacan, helps keep us so. Citizen diplomacy, as embodied in sister city partnerships, enlivens Arlington’s social, educational, and cultural environment, continuing to enrich the lives of Arlingtonians and visitors to our community.”
The fiscal impact, the county staff noted, is virtually nothing: half a staff position and a $12,000 budget.
Karl VanNewkirk, the active volunteer who heads the Arlington Sister City Association, told me the county funding was reduced beginning last July, changing over to a $40,000 grant and a $10,000 challenge grant. “The grants are subject to the vagaries of the annual budgeting process,” he said.
While he can recall one complaint of the boondoggle variety years ago, most onlookers realize that travel expenses are paid by private individuals and lodging by the host cities, except for occasional excursions by county board members who accept invites from sister city partners. Their trips have been covered by the Arlington association, funded through member dues and individual and corporate sponsorships.
The International Sister City Association, its treasurer’s told the conference, has seen its assets double in the past two years to $4.5 million for 2010 (unaudited), mostly through foundation grants.
There are no rules limiting the number of sister city relationships-Chicago has a whopping 28. The movement in Arlington is apt to expand.
Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at email@example.com