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What does a mountain town in eastern Japan, a city in northern Hungary known for its wine and historic castle and the city of Gainesville have in common?
These three cities with vastly different histories located in far flung regions of the world agreed to share their culture, government and economies with each other through a sister-city relationship.
“The idea behind the program is that the cities share information about who they are, where they are located and their economic development, and to see if there is a way to share economic success,” said Catiel Felts, Gainesville’s director of communications and tourism.
The first sister-city relationship began in the early 1980s with the city of Ohito, Japan, which is in the eastern part of the country about 17 miles from Mount Fuji. Its economy is dominated by agriculture and tourism related to the city’s hot spring, making it a compatible match with Gainesville, which supports a large chicken industry and has the tourism draw of Lake Lanier.
In the late ’80s, the mayor of Ohito, along with other representatives, visited Gainesville. Then in 1995, several members of the city government visited Japan.
“One of the benefits of sister-city relationships is learning from each other about business and industry,” said city councilman George Wangmann, who was part of the envoy that visited Ohito. “Oftentimes, we go places in order to promote ourselves and to recruit other industries.
“Japan being one of the more stable economies on the earth, we felt it was important to have a sister city there.”
In 2005, Ohito combined with two nearby towns to form the city of Izunokuni.
Following the relationship with Ohito, Gainesville established another sister-city relationship with Eger, Hungary, in 1997. This city is two hours away from Budapest, the capital of Hungary, and is known for its fine wines and well-preserved baroque architecture.
“When it comes to sister-city relationships, we try to pick a region that is similar to ours,” Felts said. “In Ohito, they have lakes and mountains, similar to our geography, and the climate is similar as well.
“The relationship with Eger started with the assistance of ZF Industries, which operates plants in both Eger and Gainesville.”
ZF Industries is a Germany-based company that produces drivelines and chassis for automobile manufacturers.
In 1998, the mayor and other representatives from Eger’s local government visited Gainesville, which reciprocated a few years later.
Doug Hanson, a local resident and active missionary worker, visited Eger in 2006. He made the trip after passing through Hungary on the way to visit a Romanian orphanage that he supported.
“The first time I went there, it was as a tourist, and once I came back and discovered it was our sister city, I spent some time gathering information about the initiative,” he said.
Armed with a gifts, memorabilia and a letter of goodwill from then-mayor Bob Hamrick, he returned to Eger to foster a closer relationship.
“On the return visit, I was warmly received,” he said. “I was given a city tour, shown some wonderful museums and an art exhibit and given an all-day country excursion.
“It is an extraordinary and beautiful city with the most hospitable people that I have met in Hungary.”
In addition to the visits, both cities participated in a children’s art exchange. Students from the two cities sent artwork to Gainesville, which was then displayed around town before sending art from local students to the other cities.
However, a declining world economy, increased workloads of city workers and personnel changes in all three cities caused the relationships to whither.
Gainesville has had no contact with Izunokuni since its consolidation in 2005, though the relationship is still listed on its website, and contact with Eger has dwindled to a check-in several times a year.
“Everyone’s workload has increased over the past few years, and the person who does what I do in Eger changed,” Felts said. “We have not done the artwork exchanges in the last couple of years, because the cost of mailing the artwork became almost prohibitive.
“It was costing us $300 to $400 each time. It just became very expensive.”
Hanson returned to Eger about four years ago to rekindle the sister-city relationship, but was disappointed with the reception.
“When you have changes in elected officials, you have an alteration of passion for relationships,” he said. “They had elections there and we had them here, but the relationship didn’t carry over with the political change. I tried to be the bridge, but I was unsuccessful.”
Despite the diminished contact, Hanson hopes one day the relationships with Eger and Izunokuni will be revitalized. The best way to accomplish that is to promote cultural exchanges among the students in Gainesville and the other cities, he said.
Artwork from the two cities is still on display on the first floor of the Joint Administration Building in downtown Gainesville.