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First sister-city meeting scheduled for Nov. 8 in Jackson

New sister-city organization hopes to bring more cities aboard

To date, Madison is Mississippi’s only city that shares a sister-city relationship with another country, but a new state sister-city organization hopes to change that by the end of the year.

Steve Vassallo has been involved with Madison’s partnership with Solleftea, Sweden, from the start and is the state’s first chairman of Mississippi for Sister Cities International (SCI). SCI is the national membership association for sister city, county and state programs in the U.S. SCI helps partner cities in sister-city relationships that can lead to cultural exchange, economic development, business connections and sharing of information on topics like health care or technology.

Vassallo is organizing the first annual meeting of Mississippi SCI on Nov. 8 to entice other Mississippi cities to start sister-city relationships with foreign cities. The meeting will be held from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at the Jackson Hilton in Jackson. Vassallo is inviting every mayor of cities with populations of more than 5,000 people, but any city representative interested in pursuing a sister-city partnership is welcome. Vassallo’s goal is to have at least 10 cities involved by the end of the year.

“We live in a global world,” said Vassallo. “Communities that only have a domestic agenda are really missing the boat.”

Madison’s sister-city relationship gained national attention in June when Good Housekeeping magazine awarded Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler a spot among just eight women in U.S. government who are making a difference. The award was given for Butler’s work on Madison’s sister-city relationship and the innovative way that Madison has used the relationship for industry recruitment.

“A lot of cities have sister-city relationships, but most are based on cultural exchanges,” said Butler. “Ours is economic development.”

Since Madison partnered with Solleftea in 1997, four Swedish companies have located to Madison — Minitube, Haglof, Logosol and Joint Tech. About two years ago, Madison built an incubator for startup Swedish companies. Joint Tech is currently the incubator’s only resident.

Last October, 15 Swedish companies flew over for a tour of the incubator. Madison is planning to host another tour later this year to entice Swedish companies to locate to Madison and take advantage of incubator incentives. The incubator has about 20,000 square feet of space.

To keep the Madison-Solleftea relationship going, the two cities have a conference once a year and keep up a steady stream of communication throughout the rest of the year.

“We’re constantly bringing people over to look at Madison,” said Butler. “And residents who’ve been over there have developed friendships and stay in contact.”

The mechanics of how to find a sister-city match will be outlined at the meeting, along with ways to get the most out of the relationship. Cities seeking a match only need a small nucleus of people — three or four — to get the ball rolling, said Vassallo, and help is available through the state chapter of SCI.

Butler advises cities to find their niche and then seek a city with common characteristics. Mississippi and Sweden both have strong forestry industries, in addition to other similarities, and that is why Solleftea was a good fit for Madison, Butler said. She also advises city officials to get community support before pursuing a relationship. Madison started off with a group of about 30 local residents, but Butler admits there was some negativity when the idea was first broached.

“It seemed like a pie in the sky,” she said. “I say go for it. We were able to make some wonderful business connections and develop personal relationships with business people who were movers and shakers. It would be wonderful if other cities looked for a relationship like we have.”

For more information about attending the conference, call Vassallo at (601) 594-1919 or e-mail him: sovassallo@aol.com.

Contact MBJ Staff Writer Kelly Russell Ingebretsen at kelly@msbusiness.com.

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