The Mathildenhöhe in Darmstadt, Germany, is on UNESCO's tentative list to receive World heritage status in 2019. Credit: FlickrCC / frans16611

On Wednesday, a delegation of San Antonio’s political, business, education, and cultural leaders will travel to Darmstadt, Germany, where Mayor Ron Nirenberg will sign the city’s 11th Sister Cities agreement on Friday.

Darmstadt will be San Antonio’s first sister city in continental Europe, and San Antonio will be Darmstadt’s first outside of Europe. While at first glance the two cities may appear quite different, a peek beneath the surface reveals commonalities that Nirenberg says could benefit San Antonio.

Several years in the making, the agreement with Darmstadt will solidify cultural, economic, and educational exchanges that could bring jobs to Texas, the mayor said.

“This agreement is part of a cultural and diplomatic mission to cultivate relationships with cities abroad in order to create jobs at home,” the mayor told the Rivard Report last week. “International relations are one of the key reasons we’ve seen our [gross domestic product] grow.”

Mayor Ron Nirenberg.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Located in the southwest part of Germany in the state of Hesse, Darmstadt has more than 150,000 inhabitants, with its greater metro area boasting a population of about 430,000.

The city was largely destroyed in a bombing raid during World War II and occupied by American forces after the war ended. The U.S. had several large military installations in Darmstadt, one of which, the Cambrai-Fritsch Kaserne, closed in 2008. It is now being repurposed for residential projects – not unlike Brooks.

“[Darmstadt] was able to reinvent itself” after the war, said Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8), the mayor’s designee for Darmstadt relations and a member of the mission delegation. “That’s a perfect example of resilience.

“These trips are not just about outreach, they are about benchmarking opportunities. We are going to be able to learn from subject matter experts and bring home best practices.”

Darmstadt holds the official title of “City of Science” due to the plethora of research, educational, biomedical, cybersecurity, and technological institutions and companies in the area, and was recently designated as Germany’s first-ever “Digital City.” It is home to the European Space Operations Centre and the world’s oldest pharmaceutical company, Merck, among other major employers.

“It’a simple recipe: You start with friendship, then find opportunities based on mutual understandings and exchanges,” said San Antonio Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Richard Perez, who will be accompanied on the mission by three other Chamber executives. “People do business with people they know and trust. We’ve seen the fruits of these labors in the relationship former Mayor Henry Cisneros cultivated with Japan,” Perez said, pointing to Toyota’s game-changing investment when it chose San Antonio’s Southside as the location for its new manufacturing plant in 2003.

Many of Darmstadt’s business sectors align with San Antonio’s, which is why representatives from both cities were keen to pursue international exchanges.

In fact, Nirenberg, who will become chairman of the Sister Cities International board in 2018, will travel to Darmstadt directly from another trade mission in Israel. He and other delegation members are meeting with Israeli government and business leaders to discuss cybersecurity, health care, biosciences, and entrepreneurship and visit the UNESCO World Heritage-designated section of Old Jerusalem. San Antonio signed a Friendship City Agreement with Tel Aviv in 2011.


One of the Darmstadt mission’s highlights will be the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) and the Darmstadt Technical University, which will set the stage for exchanges between students and faculty in various disciplines. This initiative aims to link the Sister Cities relationship’s youth and education component to research and economic development.

The Darmstadt university’s profile is similar to that of UTSA, said Rene Zenteno, UTSA’s vice provost for international initiatives and professor of demography in the College of Public Policy.

“One of UTSA’s greatest strengths is our diverse student population, so to collaborate with a university that’s been a champion of diversity for so long is exciting for us,” Zenteno said. “Exchange programs are open to nearly every student on campus; however, cybersecurity and engineering will take the lead.”

In that vein, Zenteno and other educational leaders will visit the University of the Incarnate Word’s European Study Center in Heidelberg, Germany, which allows students to experience the German way of life while earning college credits.

Tom C. Clark High School in the Northside Independent School District will enter into a youth exchange program with a high school in Darmstadt this year, with the possibility of students traveling to Germany in 2019.

“It is vitally important that Texas, the United States, and the world knows that San Antonio produces a workforce that is culturally and globally literate,” Nirenberg said.


As is tradition when Darmstadt adds a sister city, the public transportation system will name one of its new trams after San Antonio and brand it with the city’s original coat of arms. Pelaez, a member of City Council’s Transportation Committee, hopes to pick up transportation strategies that could be applied in San Antonio despite the vast difference in the sister cities’ sizes.

Councilman Manny Peláez (D8) chats with Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) at the reception honoring San Antonio's 2017 City Council leadership at the Pearl Stable.
Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8). Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“San Antonio has many pockets of activity that are connected by highways. The medical center is in and of itself a city,” as are Brooks, downtown, Monte Vista, and many other areas, he said. “If we look at it in small pieces as opposed to one big area, it becomes a manageable thing. You can’t do anything as bold as citywide rail until you do rail in a small proving ground environment,” he said, “and the medical center would be a good place to start.

“If there’s a Darmstadt in San Antonio, it’s District 8,” Pelaez said, referring to his district’s business focus on biosciences, research, and cybersecurity, as well as its ethnic diversity.

Business and Economic Development 

San Antonio leaders including Mauli Agrawal, interim provost and vice president for academic affairs at UTSA; Adam Hamilton, president and CEO of Southwest Research Institute; Randy Harig, CEO of Texas Research and Technology Foundation; and Paula Gold-Williams, president of CPS Energy, will tour the European Space center, Merck’s facilities, and Darmstadt’s utility company Entega AG. The Darmstadt Chamber of Commerce also will initiate exchanges with the San Antonio delegation’s business and economic development officials.


Chef Johnny Hernandez prepares guacamole at Darmstadt's Heinerfest in the summer of 2017.
Chef Johnny Hernandez prepares guacamole at Darmstadt’s Heinerfest earlier this year. Credit: Courtesy / City of San Antonio

Now on his second trip to Darmstadt, chef Johnny Hernandez hopes to exchange culinary expertise with his German counterparts.

“Culinary diplomacy is a big factor in international relations,” Hernandez said. “The timing is great, because we recently applied to become a city of gastronomy under UNESCO.”

The mission will also include a tour of the Hofgut Oberfeld, a local recreational area engaged in organic farming and biodynamic agriculture.

“I’m excited to learn about Darmstadt’s approach to organic farming,” Hernandez said.

His culinary nonprofit Campus Kitchen is currently designing a garden on San Antonio’s Westside that will provide students the opportunity to learn the craft and business of the culinary arts. “It will be great to observe their use of innovation and technology and become more familiar with German cuisine and techniques,” he said. 

The delegation also will visit with Darmstadt’s leading brewmasters. The owners of the Darmstädter Privatbrauerei have the same last name – Koehler – as the owners of the former San Antonio Brewing Association, which became the Pearl Brewing Company.

Arts and Culture

San Antonio cultural leaders will participate in a roundtable discussion with their German counterparts, including the president of Darmstadt’s world-famous Jazz Institut, the director of the Academy of Tonkunst (literally, “the art of sound”), and the director of the Mathildenhöhe, a former artists’ colony that is on UNESCO’s tentative list to receive World heritage status in 2019.

The mission’s cultural component already has yielded exchanges that will add programming to San Antonio’s Tricentennial. For example, on Feb. 3, Musical Bridges Around the World will host a Sister Cities jazz ensemble at the Empire Theatre, to be comprised of musicians from all of San Antonio’s sister cities. The artists, including Darmstadt saxophonist and flutist Anke Schimpf, will perform original compositions by San Antonio jazz musician Aaron Prado.

Later this week, San Antonio leaders will meet with officials of Darmstadt’s Youth Orchestra, International Youth Camp, and International Children’s Games.

San Antonio’s strategic relationship with Darmstadt began to crystalize in July 2015 when a delegation led by then-Mayor Ivy Taylor and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff traveled to Bonn, Germany, for the designation of the Spanish-colonial Missions as a UNESCO World Heritage site. In April 2016, Darmstadt’s Lord Mayor Jochen Partsch traveled to San Antonio, where he and Taylor signed a friendship agreement.

In July, San Antonio was featured prominently during the annual Heinerfest –Darmstadt’s version of Fiesta – when the City’s Arts and Culture Department assembled a group of representatives to showcase the city’s culture, particularly its German and Spanish-Mexican influences. The San Antonio Charros performed, Hernandez held culinary demonstrations, and Alamo Beer’s brewmaster James Hudec brewed a Darmstadt collaborative IPA.

“It was the perfect example of using arts and culture as a tool in diplomacy,” said Shahrzad “Sherry” Dowlatshahi, the City’s chief diplomacy and protocol officer. “It opened the door for the citizens of Darmstadt to get a glimpse of San Antonio, and it set the stage for the Mayor’s trade and cultural mission in October.”

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Hanna Oberhofer

Before moving to San Antonio in 2004, Hanna was a competitive rhythmic gymnast in her native Austria. She earned degrees from St. Mary’s University and the Texas State Graduate College before joining...