Like many Midwestern cities, Peoria is quietly diverse. Not only do varied populations reside in the city, but Peoria reaches out and encourages a multicultural approach to life through its relationship with its sister cities.
According to Peoria Sister Cities Commission Chairman Mike Quine, the sister cities program is a national program intended to share American cultural values with citizens of other countries. "The goal is foster friendship and understanding," he said.
Peoria's three sister cities are Friedrichshafen, Germany; Clonmel, Ireland; and Benxi, China-each with its own history. "We've had the relationship with Friedrichshafen for almost 30 years," Quine said. "We've had a sister city in Benxi since the mid-1990s, and Clonmel is the newest sister city, beginning in 1998. Friedrichshafen is the Caterpillar dealer for most of European operations, and the relationship developed from that rather naturally. Benxi had a similar relationship with Komatsu, but that's no longer in effect. Clonmel was established as a result of a desire by residents of central Illinois of Irish descent."
Quine explained President Dwight Eisenhower was the driving force behind the sister cities program. "This followed the belief that wars are less likely if the people of each country have friendships and a deeper level of understanding. In Europe, sister cities are referred to as twinning cities, but the concepts are the same."
He said in addition to a cultural exchange, there's also an economic aspect to the program in the form of tourism between citizens. "And, in many cases, businesses are established and nurtured between sister cities."
Quine became involved in the program while on his first trip to Friedrichshafen in 1998. "I was chairman of the Peoria Chamber of Commerce at that time, and a group of about 50 Peorians made the trip. Bud Grieves was mayor, and while on the trip, I think Bud could tell I enjoyed getting to know our European counterparts. He asked if I would consider becoming the chairman of the commission, as Gordon Peters, the chair for many years, was in the process of retiring from the position. I agreed, and the rest is history."
Along with the commissioners, Quine said the most important organizations involved with sister cities are the "Friends of…" clubs: Friends of Clonmel, Friends of Friedrichshafen, and Friends of Benxi. "The clubs are made up of many people who have an interest in the relationships with the people from one of the sister cities. Often, the relationship is built on country of origin. Peoria has a large contingent of people from Ireland, Germany, and China."
He said each year, there's an exchange of students from Friedrichshafen and Peoria. "One year, about 20 students go there for three weeks in the summer, and the next year, about 20 German students come here. That's a tremendous set of events that really make the relationships close. Families become close, and lifetime friendships are forged."
Quine said it's possible that other sister city relationships will be developed in the future, but there are no current plans. "We talked with the city in France where Pere Marquette is from, but for now at least, we're just exploring the possibilities. We also had a recent request to meet with citizens of Iraq, but it will probably be a while before it's safe to consider."
He said the best aspect of his involvement with the program is getting to know people with similar jobs and civic concerns in other countries. "Finding the time to devote to the relationship is sometimes difficult, but it's a very rewarding experience."
He offered a big "thank you" to everyone currently involved in the sister cities program. "Many caring people give their time and financial resources when we're making trips or hosting guests. The German-American Society is very active, as are several Irish-American organizations. The park district is always supportive and involved with ethnic festivals. And local elected officials-especially the city council and commissioners-are always ready to get involved."
Quine encouraged central Illinois residents to consider becoming involved with the sister cities program. "Get involved, and you'll have a great time," he said. "Get your children and grandchildren involved, and they'll not only enjoy the opportunity, but they'll become better, more well-rounded citizens when they grow up." IBI