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South Portland seeks citizens for sister city initiative

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South Portland seeks citizens for sister city initiative

SOUTH PORTLAND — Mayor Tom Coward is seeking about a dozen citizens to help South Portland find a sister city.

Launching a Sister City partnership was one of the initiatives outlined in Coward's inaugural address in December, but it has taken a back seat to more pressing issues like the budget.

"I have been anxious to bring this forward once we got the budget behind us," Coward said.

The project would be accomplished with the help of Sister City International, a non-profit organization that seeks to strengthen ties between the United States and the international community through cultural exchanges.

Coward said students would benefit most from a sister city program, which encourages student exchanges. But city officials could also benefit, especially in areas of technology and business.

"This isn't intended to be some charitable outreach," he said. "We're looking more for a peer where we can exchange ideas and business on an equal basis."

Coward said he is looking for about 12 residents or business leaders to serve on a committee that would further explore the idea, conduct fundraising and ultimately recommend a partner city. He hopes to hold the first meeting in late June.

Once the program is established, Coward said a standing committee of residents would be responsible for keeping the project going, with minimal help from the city.

"I don't want this to turn into my pet project," he said. "Otherwise, it will die when I'm gone."

The City Council discussed the idea at a workshop on Monday.

While supportive of the concept, some councilors questioned its cost and whether it would add to the workload of city staff.

"We need to have people with a long-term commitment in mind to make this a success," Councilor Linda Boudreau said. "I'm concerned about passing this off on city staff that doesn't have the time to do it."

Councilors Tom Blake and Rosemarie De Angelis said the partnership needed to have buy-in from not only the public school system, but area colleges. Both are adjunct faculty at Southern Maine Community College.

"I really see that as the threshold for making this a success," De Angelis said.

It's unclear how much the partnership would cost the city. But Portland City Hall spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said Portland, which has four sister cities, pays an annual membership fee of $680 to Sister City International, while ancillary costs for host visits and the like are raised by committees.

According to the SCI website, about 2,500 communities in 134 countries, including Portland, participate in the initiative, founded in 1967.

About 35 percent of the group's membership comes from Europe, while 30 percent are Asian or Oceanic countries. 

This is not the first time South Portland has dipped its toe in international waters.

City Manager Jim Gailey said the city previously explored becoming a sister city with Puchon, South Korea. Despite a partnership with Fairchild Semiconductor, there wasn't a sustained interest to move the project forward, he said.

Coward said believes the city is ready for an international exchange.

"We need people who are willing to dig in and get their hands dirty," he said.

Anyone interested in participating should contact the mayor at 329-8637 or tcoward@southportland.org by June 4.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net