Westminster forges links with town in Estonia

October 03, 2004|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

When Westminster chose Paide as its sister city two years ago, there were probably not many residents who knew where it was or anything else about the small town in the Eastern European country of Estonia.

But after several cross-cultural exchanges and business tours between the countries, residents from both municipalities are learning about each other.

Since September 2002, Westminster has organized a series of international exchanges that includes children's choir concerts, visits by city officials and tours with local business owners. Local officials hope that the exchanges foster more economic development between the cities and more of a global awareness.

Westminster and Paide form the ninth pair of 10 sister cities established between Maryland and Estonian municipalities. Other matches include capitals Annapolis and Tallinn, Frostburg and Viljandi, and Salisbury and Tartu. The Maryland National Guard has been at the forefront in establishing and supporting these partnerships, said retired Lt. Col. Larry Betz, partner city coordinator.

Setting a standard

Betz said Westminster's active international itineraries set a standard for the program.

"They're probably the one leading the way. Westminster's actually helped the other cities because they've created a road map for other cities to follow," Betz said.

In a short presentation last week at Westminster's Common Council meeting, Finance Director Joseph D. Urban showed that the city has spent about $3,700 in its partnership with Paide - most of it in immigration fees for an Estonian government employee who worked in Westminster last year.

Most of the costs of the activities and exchanges are shouldered by a nonprofit fund, the National Guard's Minuteman Fellows Program, and private donations, city officials said.

The Estonia Fund, one of more than 100 funds overseen by the $3.4 million nonprofit Community Foundation of Carroll County, is responsible for fund raising and accepting tax-deductible donations that pay for Estonia-themed activities and trips, said foundation President Audrey Cimino.

Cimino, also the foundation's chief executive officer, said the Estonia Fund usually fluctuates between $10,000 and $13,000 at any given time. She said the fund pays hotel bills for visits from Estonian delegations. The fund also reimbursed the city when council President Damian L. Halstad visited Estonia last year.

The fund has reimbursed the city for $5,723 in Estonia-related expenses since the partnership began, city officials said. The bulk of the expenses include cell phone bills, meals with the Estonian delegation and memorabilia.

"Part of the thinking initially was that we don't want to even have the perception of using public money," Cimino said.

The city has received $16,404 in donations from private companies and grants that were routed to the Estonia Fund, officials said. The largest donation that has been disclosed is $6,500 - part of a deposit left by Martin K.P. Hill for a decade-old water main project in the city. Hill accompanied a group of business owners who paid their own way to Estonia on a visit in April.

Musical exchanges

Cimino also has traveled to the Baltic Sea nation. A singer, she accompanied Eric Byrd and his jazz trio to perform three concerts as part of the partnership.

Most recently, the Children's Chorus - 24 children and 37 adults - went on an 11-day tour to Finland, Sweden and Estonia. A fund-raiser this year and donations from parents paid for most of the trip. While in Estonia, the children and chaperones were guests of the country.

Westminster also has been host to several Estonian musical groups, including children's choirs and a medieval performance by the group Rondelus in February.

Paide elected officials first visited Westminster during its annual Fallfest parade in 2002. Since then, there has been an annual exchange of city officials.

At the end of a recent 10-day trip, three Estonians attended the Common Council on Monday, including Paide's school system director and economic development director.

Westminster Mayor Kevin E. Dayhoff recently returned from a one-week trip to Estonia.

On the educational front, an Estonian student who won a scholarship to attend Carroll Community College is entering his second semester and staying with a host family.

The sister-city arrangements evolved from a military program established in Estonia by the Maryland National Guard in 1993, Betz said. He said that Estonia, formerly a part of the Soviet Union, was chosen because about 1,000 natives of that country have settled in Maryland. The program expanded into business and cultural interests in 1999.

Betz said the Minuteman Fellows Program pays for most of the airfare between Maryland and Estonia for city officials and others who qualify for fellowships.

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