Chicago Finds Sister Cities Ready to Do Commerce

City establishes trade links with communities from Toronto to Kiev

ACCORDING to an old saw, one should never do business with a family member. But don't tell that to the city of Chicago.

In recent years, Chicago has set up contacts with several cities abroad through Sister Cities International, and then helped local companies parlay the kindred relationships into hefty contracts.

The Windy City is at the forefront of a trend of municipalities transforming sister-city relationships from cultural exchanges into more commercial ventures.

Late last month, for example, the mayor of Birmingham, England, crowned a ceremony celebrating the opening of sister-city relations by announcing that Budget Rent-A-Car of Chicago intends to buy 500 cars from Jaguar Cars Ltd. of Birmingham.

The deal is typical of the sort of ventures that have stemmed from sister-city relationships, says Pat Matsumoto, spokeswoman for Chicago's Department of Cultural Affairs.

Chicago businesses are increasingly using the city's 11 sister-city arrangements as a way to find business, trade, and investment opportunities abroad, Ms. Matsumoto says. To help ``internationalize'' Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley in 1990 assigned staff members in the Cultural Affairs Department to help the nonprofit organization match Chicago with foreign cities. Since then, Chicago has signed agreements with Birmingham, Kiev in Ukraine, Prague, and Toronto.

Chicago is one of the more aggressive among hundreds of American cities hoping to form profitable relationships abroad through the office of Sister Cities International in Alexandria, Va. In the past year, this headquarters has approved an average of five sister-city arrangements each month, a jump from three per month in previous years. About 960 US cities have formed sister-city relationships abroad and some 600 cities hope to do so.

From its inception until the 1980s, the Sister Cities program was intended to promote exchanges in education, the arts, and athletics rather than in business. It is affiliated with the Department of State and is partly funded by the Agency for International Development.

President Eisenhower established the people-to-people program to facilitate student exchanges. Most notably, the organization circumvented political barriers and established contacts with cities in the defunct East bloc; Chicago in 1960 signed on Warsaw as its first sister city.

SINCE the collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening of Eastern Europe to capitalist ventures, many US cities are using the program to promote commerce.

The program is especially attractive to cities and companies in the US, Europe, and Japan as they aggressively search outside their sluggish domestic economies for opportunities overseas.

The rising popularity of the Sister Cities program is a conspicuous sign of how grass-roots groups in many countries are bypassing national governments to link up with their counterparts abroad. The traditional nation-state is likely to continue yielding its influence over economic, cultural, and other affairs to low-level political bodies and interest groups, say futurologists.

The diffusion of power will accelerate as people grow more economically interdependent and communications and travel become cheaper, more accessible, and more pervasive, they say.

While the payoffs for the Chicago economy from the Sister City program are clear, administrators acknowledge that there are concerns that executives might exploit the amity that comes with cultural exchanges.

``It is a matter of concern and I think that we try very hard to ensure that the people who are involved are high-minded,'' Matsumoto says. She notes that executives involved in running Sister Cities do so voluntarily and play a vital role in helping to raise funds for the Chicago program.

The commercial gains from the latest foray by Sister City boosters are likely to be remarkable, according to volunteer Cindy Mitchell. She led a delegation of 10 executives representing at least 18 businesses on a mission to the sister city of Casablanca, Morocco, from Sept. 18 until Sept. 25.

``The enthusiasm and reception from all the companies that our delegates met with were just overwhelming and I can't imagine that we're not going to have some very positive results from this,'' Ms. Mitchell says.

On the trip, a bank signed correspondence agreements, a cosmetics company made positive initial contacts, and an environmental company held talks on recycling.

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