The Atlanta Sister Cities Commission‘s annual report released in late May showed signs of life for the city’s international ties but also that Mayor Kasim Reed’s recent efforts to rekindle Atlanta’s long-dormant relationships are timely and necessary.
Educational exchanges and economic programs topped the list of activities undertaken by the 14 of Atlanta’s 18 official sister cities, according to the report, whose authors said renewed support from the city’s international affairs office has been well received.
“With a fully staffed Office of International Affairs, Atlanta now has the means to support international initiatives such as sister cities, and that means reinvigorating some of the current sister-cities relationships,” said Claire Angelle, the newly appointed director of the office, in an email interview.
However, not all sister city relationships are created equal.
Some twin cities are home to booming industries and lively cultural centers with close ties to Atlanta, while others have seen their relationships wane as time and people move on, said Noah Downer, chief of protocol for the city’s international affairs office.
Two relationships are currently inactive – Brussels, Belgium, and Salzburg, Austria – but the commission hopes to reestablish committees for each of those relationships soon, Ms. Angelle said.
Ms. Angelle said the city is focused on nurturing its 18 existing sister city relationships, but “if opportunities for additional sister cities are presented, our office will review and determine if resources are available to expand our current partnerships.”
Before city austerity measures kicked into place following the economic downturn of 2008, the commission received funding from the Atlanta City Council‘s Advisory Committee On International Relations in the form of multi-year grants. That helped it generate an annual fund of approximately $50,000 in direct and in-kind support to support exchange programs, local economic development conferences and travel to national conventions.
While the mayor’s office does pay Atlanta’s membership dues to the Sister Cities International umbrella organization, the all-volunteer commission is now funded almost exclusively through private sponsorships, which limits their level of activity, said Teri Simmons, an immigration lawyer with the firm Arnall Golden Gregory LLP and the longtime chairwoman of the Atlanta Sister Cities Commission.
City funding would enhance the commission’s ability to accomplish its goals, Ms. Simmons said.
“I think the most important goal if we would have funding would be to reinstate some of the activities we were able to engage in in the past,” Ms. Simmons said.
She particularly pointed to the annual Sister Cities International convention, where sister-city representatives gather to learn and share best practices. SCI has twice recognized Atlanta’s commission as a model for other cities.
According to the Atlanta commission’s annual report, its most recent exchange of students drew over 30 participants from some of Atlanta’s most active sister cities of Montego Bay, Jamaica; Newcastle, United Kingdom; Nuremberg, Germany; Salcedo, Dominican Republic; Taipei, Taiwan; and Toulouse, France.
On the other side of the coin, sister city relationships are another venue to solidify trade relationships, generating goodwill and personal connections with decision makers that would be much more difficult to establish without the formal relationships, Mr. Downer said.
“The friendships that Atlanta shares with these 18 cities worldwide have been particularly highlighted in 2013,” Mr. Reed said in a letter included with the report, noting how trade missions to sister cities create openings for business, educational and cultural exchanges. “On these occasions, I experienced first hand the driving force of which these powerful partnerships are capable.”
Last year, Mr. Reed visited two sister cities – Montego Bay, Jamaica and Newcastle, England – where he was able to listen to a recently discovered speech given by the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1967 while receiving an honorary doctorate at Newcastle University.
After hearing the speech, Mr. Reed told the BBC that he thought the speech was special and worthy of inclusion in the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, which is set to open in downtown Atlanta this week.
“I’m hopeful an arrangement can be made with the city of Newcastle to ensure that the archival footage is included in the center, which really is going to be an incredible space,” Mr. Reed said.
The mayor also recently returned from a trade mission in April to Sao Paulo and the Atlanta sister city Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, as the country was preparing for the FIFA World Cup. Brazil is currently Georgia’s eight-largest export market and ranks second among Georgia’s Latin American investors based on total employment and total number of facilities, according to the mayor’s office.
While in Brazil, Mr. Reed visited the Rio de Janeiro mayor and promised chamber of commerce leaders that he wasn’t going to simply pay lip service to a relationship that was established 40 years ago this year.
“Not very much has come of that in terms of substance and real cooperation. So I wanted to come today and I’ll be back in the future to make the sister city relationship we’ve had for decades now more meaningful and more powerful,” Mr. Reed said during a Rio investment forum.
He also added that Atlanta is prepared to offer Rio advice on what to watch out for when hosting the Olympics.
“The number of cities in the world that have hosted the games is less than 10 in modern times, so you just don’t have a number of colleagues to go to,” he said. “And there is no stand-in for someone who’s lived it.”
Mr. Reed’s office told Global Atlanta in May that he is rethinking a planned trip to Lagos, Nigeria, – another sister city to Atlanta – later this year amid security concerns stemming from violence attributed to groups like Boko Haram, which gained international attention for its kidnapping of 300 schoolgirls in April.
The city also hopes the program will receive additional awareness later this summer from international visitors traveling through Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport via 3D digital ads listing all of Atlanta’s sister-city relationships.
For more information on the commission or for the full list of sister cities, click here.
To read the full report, click here.