City hopes to strengthen sister cities in Estonia

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Cumberland Times-News

Elaine Blaisdell, March 25, 2011


Photo by Steve Bittner, Cumberland Times-News - From left: Ivar Unt, city council member, town of Valga, Estonia and Reno Laidre, Mayor, town of Elva, Estonia, listen as Andrei Novikov, vice-head, Tallinn Lasname District Administration asks questions of the Cumberland mayor and City Council Thursday. Eight professionals from the country visited the city to discuss strengthening sister-city ties.


CUMBERLAND — Eight professionals from Estonia, including the mayors of Vru, Valga and Elva, the governor of Hiiumaa and deputy mayor of Tartu, met with local officials to learn about the sister-state relationship between Maryland and Estonia. They also met to build stronger sister-city ties, to establish an international partnership and to learn about Cumberland’s modes of governance and its opportunities for local growth, development and tourism.

Susan Keller, former Frostburg commissioner, and Cumberland Mayor Brian Grim both spoke about developing a sister-county or sister-state relationship with Estonia. At one point, Frostburg had a sister-city relationship with VIljandi and Cumberland had a sister-city relationship with Tapa.

“It is hard to maintain an active sister-city program and it’s hard to set up. It’s been a struggle to form a long and lasting relationship,” said Keller, who helped to establish Frostburg’s sister-city relationship.

Keller said a sister-city relationship is really between individuals and that relationship can fall by the wayside when those individuals move out of their respective offices.

“A sister-county would be a merit for all of Allegany County to consider,” said Keller. “With a county-wide relationship we could make that relationship more productive.”

Krista Kull, director of public relations and tourism department for the Viljandi Town Government in Estonia, stressed the importance of a sister-city relationship. Kull explained a sister-city relationship was started in 1960 with Finland. This relationship provided Estonia with social aid, clothes and machinery. Kull noted that someone is in contact with Finland almost every day.

“It is important to find someone in another city, so you can teach them something or learn something important. It doesn’t matter what it is. It helps to have some contact to help and share ideas,” said Kull.

Brenda Smith, Cumberland’s economic development coordinator, explained her role and the history of Cumberland.

“Cumberland used to be a very strong manufacturing city, and it’s starting to change with a strong focus on bio technology and ACRO (information) Technology,” said Smith.

Smith also filled the visitors in on the developments of the city’s two former hospital buildings, the Braddock and Memorial campuses.

Barbra Buehl, director of Allegany County Tourism, explained the role of tourism in Cumberland and highlighted the C&O Canal towpath, Western Maryland Scenic Railroad and the Great Allegheny Passage.

“Here we do look at tourism as a part of economic development. We have what I like to call an old-town charm,” said Buehl. “We have a very deep history and have a lot to offer for a getaway weekend.”

Grim explained the roles of the council members, their salaries and said that Cumberland is just a “stone’s throw away” from Virginia, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

“The pay is so minimal, we are basically considered glorified volunteers,” said Grim. “But we don’t do this for the money or because we want to get elected. We do it because we like to serve.”

Once the presentations were complete, Estonian officials asked questions.

Andrei Novikov, vice head of Tallinn Lasnamäe District Administration, questioned whether the city has any issues with losing residents to bigger towns. Grim said it is difficult to retain younger people and the city is working to address that issue by creating technology firm jobs and by turning the city into a post-secondary education hub.

Ivar Unt, mayor of Valga, questioned how taxes work, what the city’s main problems are and asked for a copy of the City Council agenda and a copy of the budget.

Grim said the city charges a flat rate for property tax and these taxes, about $10 million, go toward public safety. Grim noted that the main problems in the city are the budget and infrastructure.

Estonian officials and city officials planned to walk through the downtown mall on their way to lunch at City Lights.

Councilman Nicholas Scarpelli said the downtown mall is similar to places in Europe.

“Once you see it, you’re going to be homesick. You’ll feel like you’re in Europe,” said Scarpelli.

Prior to coming to Cumberland, the Estonian officials met with city officials in Frostburg. They plan to visit Annapolis next.

The visit was part of the  International Visitors Leadership Program administerd by The World Trade Center Institute in Baltimore. IVLP?is provided to the entire state of Maryland on behalf of the U.S. Department of State. The program seeks to build understanding between the U.S. and people of other countries by discussing best practices in various professional fields and improving American foreign relations. Participants are established or potential foreign leaders in their areas of expertise. More than 190,000 International Visitors have participated in the program since its inception in 1940.

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