Sister city search narrows to Paide

Official who has visited contenders suggests Estonian municipality

July 09, 2002|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

A four-day visit by Westminster officials to Estonia last month has given the city its best bet to find a soul mate on the other side of the world: Paide, a sister municipality in a nation that has risen from the constraints of Soviet rule to become an emerging Baltic powerhouse.

Westminster's mayor and Common Council received their first public debriefing of that trip last night from Thomas B. Beyard, the city's director of planning and public works, one of two city officials who made the trek.

"If you changed the signs, it could be anywhere in Smalltown, America," Beyard said. "Paide has a nice town square with the backdrop of a grand Lutheran Church. Streets are tree-lined and spotless. People can be seen walking, and motorists stop at marked crosswalks.

"The downtown business area has many well-maintained shops that appear successful. One could easily see any of these downtown streets in our own Westminster," he said.

Westminster officials have been looking for a sister city for a few years, and Beyard - who also has visited Rapla and Jogeva in Estonia - has recommended Paide. The next step is for Paide officials to visit Westminster - they probably will do so in September. Eventually, a formal agreement would link the cities.

A partnership with Paide, a small town nestled in the Baltic heartland, would bring many economic and cultural rewards to Westminster. Even though its population is about half the size of Westminster's, Beyard said it's a good fit for education, vision and economic development.

The goal would be to develop business opportunities in the region, an emerging industrial and technological center with export ties to Sweden, Finland, Russia and the United Kingdom. Estonia exports shale oil, wood products and machinery, as well as niche products such as pianos, cross-country skis, hockey sticks and Nokia phones, something Beyard saw firsthand.

Links to Estonia

Most Maryland residents might not know that Estonia - which is bordered by the Gulf of Riga, the Baltic Sea, the Gulf of Finland, Russia and Latvia - has eight cities that enjoy sibling status with counterparts in Maryland. Annapolis is paired with its capital twin, Tallinn; Frostburg with Viljandi; and Salisbury with Tartu.

The Maryland National Guard and the Association of Estonian Cities have a military exchange dating from 1993 that has evolved into civilian and business contacts. The National Guard paid for most of the trip for Beyard and Ronald J. Schroers, Westminster's administrator of recreation and activities, so the city's share of the cost was about $500, Beyard said.

"Paide has many similarities with Westminster," Beyard said. "Mayor Tonis Koiv spoke of Paide's interests in children and youth, cultural affairs, visions for new industrial and housing areas, hiking-biking trails and other areas. I [said] that many of these interests were similar to Westminster's plans for the Carroll Arts Center, the Wakefield Valley Community Trail, the development of new industrial areas and our work to restore the Fenby Farm Lime Kiln."

As a gesture of good will, Westminster also plans to raise $1,000 to build a skatepark - similar to one in the Carroll city - in Paide.

`That perfect place'

In past centuries, the 711-year-old town was conquered by Russian, Swedish and Polish troops and most recently overrun by German and Russian soldiers during World War II. Now, Estonia's two primary national objectives are to be part of the European Union and NATO.

"Part of what the exchange does is to bring the country of Estonia into people's minds," Beyard said.

Being in the shadow of the Soviet machine for half a century probably kept Estonia out of the public eye. Estonia was forcibly occupied and annexed into the Soviet Union in 1940 - a condition that fed civil unrest in the late 1980s and led to mass demonstrations, a reawakened national consciousness and independence in 1991.

The people Beyard met during his trip were well-educated, spoke three languages and were eager to bring Americans into their world.

"If I was asked where's that perfect place where I'd take a family, I'd say it's Paide," Beyard said.

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