A comparison between each city's downtown. (Photo courtesy by MMAC and Flickr).

As San Antonio readies to host the 57th annual Sister Cities International Conference Friday and Saturday, we asked Shahrzad “Sherry” Dowlatshahi, the City of San Antonio’s chief of protocol at the Office of International Relations, to help readers understand what such relationships mean. Are they merely cultural, good-will relationships, or do cultural and educational ties lead to mutually beneficial economic ties? San Antonio currently enjoys sister city ties with nine cities. The theme of this year’s meeting is “Sustainable Cities, Sustainable Relationships.”

Rivard Report: San Antonio sees its fair share of conventions and annual meetings. How does the Sister Cities International Conference rank in terms of size and importance?

Sherry Dowlatshahi City of San Antonio's Chief Protocol Officer
Sherry Dowlatshahi, City of San Antonio chief protocol officer.

Shahrzad “Sherry” Dowlatshahi: In terms of size, this conference is small considering San Antonio just hosted back-to-back conferences of 25,000 and 20,000 attendees. We’re anticipating approximately 600 people for the Sister Cities International Conference.

Interestingly, the conference numbers have fluctuated over the years but it has been several years since the conference has attracted this many people. Last year, in Jacksonville, Florida there were less than 200 delegates. We’re very pleased with these numbers.

The significance of this conference are the attendees of Sister Cities International with San Antonio hosting dignitaries from around the world – especially the mayors of five of San Antonio’s Sister Cities.

We will be hosting six delegations from our sister cities: Monterrey and Guadalajara, Mexico; Gwangju, S.Korea; Kumamoto, Japan; Chennai, India; Wuxi, China. Five of these delegations are headed by the mayors of those cities.

Mayor Julián Castro with Mayor Zhu Kejiang of Wuxi, China after they signed a sister city agreement on Feb 16 2012. Photo courtesy of  the City of San Antonio's International Relations Office.
Mayor Julián Castro with Mayor Zhu Kejiang of Wuxi, China after they signed a sister city agreement on Feb.16, 2012. Photo courtesy of the City of San Antonio’s International Relations Office.

This is the first time our city has hosted so many of its sister cities and sister city mayors at one time and is undoubtedly a very important occasion in terms of international protocol for the City of San Antonio.

RR: Give us a sense of the international presence and what kind of opportunity San Antonio has to show its growth and development?

Sister-Cities_2013-San-Antonio-Conference Poster

SD: There will be delegates from more than 25 countries at the conference, many from Asia and Africa. Usually, international conferences attract people from all over the world so this is consistent in this case. However, the fact that we are using the conference as an opportunity to host our sister cities makes it a unique opportunity to further solidify our ties of friendship and strengthen the existing official relationships.

The event is also becoming a tool to strengthen multinational relationships between sister city networks and local organizations. For example, the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce has an agreement with the City of Puebla, and Puebla just signed a sister city agreement with our sister city of Wuxi. These entities will be meeting at the conference to discuss possible collaboration to benefit all three.

Additionally, we are hosting a few delegations from other cities with which we have been developing relationships focused largely on economic development. San Antonio has grown significantly in the role it is playing internationally. Promoting relationships with a strong international economic development component is a win-win for our city as well as the cities we work with.

In this conference, we are also able to promote sustainability and the leadership role that our city is playing in this area. As part of the Sister Cities International Conference, we are hosting the United Nations-supported 2nd Urban Environmental Accords Summit (UEA) at the invitation of our sister city Gwangju, South Korea. In 2011, they hosted the 1st UEA Summit and brought together delegates from around the world to discuss sustainable urban development, among other things.

RR: Are there plans to take the delegates out of their hotels, meeting rooms and the River Walk, and show them more of the urban core?

SD: There are many tours that have been planned in conjunction with the conference with a focus on showing the green and sustainable side of our city. The tours include our award-winning B-cycle tours, technical tours of the San Antonio River’s Museum Reach and Mission Reach, a tour of the Dos Rios Water Recycling Center, and the Green Space Alliance’s Green Homes Tour.

Awards given at last year's Sister Cities International conference. The Office of Sustainability will officially recieve its award for "Innovation: Energy/Sustainable Development award for a city with a population of more than 500,001" for the B-cycle bike share program. Photo courtesy of Sister Cities International.
Awards given at last year’s Sister Cities International conference. This year, the Office of Sustainability will officially receive its award for “Innovation: Energy/Sustainable Development” (for a city with a population of more than 500,001) for the B-cycle bike share program. Photo courtesy of Sister Cities International.

Cultural tours include a tour of the international gifts and commissions that our city has received over the years, including the Korean Pavilion at Denman Estate Park and the Kumamoto En at the San Antonio Botanical Garden, and there will be a downtown historic tour of San Antonio focusing on our Canary Island, Spanish Colonial and Mexican root.

Finally, there are business-related tours planned of Port San Antonio and the Toyota Manufacturing Plant. We aim to get the delegates out of their hotel rooms to experience our city and what makes it so unique in this part of the world. All these tours have been carefully planned with our different community partners and will highlight the way we have successfully engaged those partners in hosting the delegates from outside our city.

RR: Back to the meeting agenda, what’s actually happening at this conference?

SD: There are a number of tracks at the conference including a Youth Leadership Summit, a Pan Pacific Summit, the Urban Environmental Accords Summit, which I mentioned earlier, an economic development track, and a general sister city information track.

There will be many San Antonio presenters participating in different sessions, and again, showcasing our city through the various programs and panels. However, it is important to note that there are many other activities that are taking place prompted by the conference but not directly a part of the conference.

Day three of last year's conference in Jacksonville, Florida: Discussion with mayors from African cities and Sister Cities International's African partners. Courtesy photo.
Day three of last year’s conference in Jacksonville, Florida: Discussion with mayors from African cities and Sister Cities International’s African partners. Courtesy photo.

Port San Antonio is underwriting a full-day event for Mexican delegates which will focus on economic development and leveraging sister city relationships in this area.

Alamo Colleges is celebrating the unveiling of a mural commemorating the sister city conference. This mural, donated by an artist in Guanajuato, Mexico, and entitled “The Mural of Brotherhood”, is to be unveiled at Palo Alto College.

The local business organization, “Asociacion de Empresarios Mexicanos”, otherwise known as AEM, will host a mixer for our Mexican visitors at the Mexican Cultural Institute which will be inaugurating an exhibit from FEMSA in Monterrey, known for its outstanding collection of Latin American Art.

The Alamo Asian American Chamber of Commerce has taken a leading role in our community by turning its annual gala into a “welcome banquet” for our sister city delegations. It promises to be an outstanding evening which provides a most appropriate setting for a celebration with our sister cities.

These are just some of the highlights we have to expect this week. If I listed one by one everything that is happening, we would run of out space. All I can say is that I am very proud of all our partners and sponsors who have joined us along the way in the planning that has gone into preparing for this week.

RR: What does it mean to have a sister city relationship in today’s global economy and the era of social media connecting all of us in real time?

SD: That is an interesting question. Given the era of social networking, it is so easy for us to be in communication with people all over the world. Our young people are able to interact with young people around the globe through the various social media platforms. This is an opportunity to promote interaction between the citizens of our respective sister cities in a much more fluid and asynchronistic as well as synchronistic manner. Modes of communication have changed so radically in the last 20 years that handwritten letters sent by traditional mail seem to be a thing of the past, yet we have the immediacy of shorter communication through email and social networks that keep us connected constantly. There is no excuse not to encourage communication between our cities, our citizens and our institutions.

RR: Tell us about San Antonio’s sister city relationships.

We have nine sister cities. Two in Mexico: Monterrey and Guadalajara. Two in the Canary Islands of Spain: Las Palmas and Santa Cruz Tenerife.

We have five sister cities in Asia: Gwangju, S. Korea, Kaohsiung, Taiwan; Kumamoto, Japan; Chennai, India; Wuxi, China.  We also have two friendship cities which are a precursor to the more formalized sister city relationship. Those are Tel Aviv in Israel and Suzhou in China.

Mayor Julián Castro during an official greeting with Channai, India Mayor Saidai S. Duraisamy in Chennai's government offices earlier this year. Photo courtesy of the International Relations Office.
Mayor Julián Castro during an official greeting with Channai, India Mayor Saidai S. Duraisamy in Chennai’s government offices earlier this year. Photo courtesy of the International Relations Office.

RR: Beyond the value of cultural ties, can you point to any tangle gains for us or our sister cities? Put another way, do cultural relationships develop into economic development?

Cultural engagement is a precursor to business relationships that can be developed. The British Council put out a report on this topic a few years ago which demonstrated how important this factor was. As we develop relationships with another city and learn about each other, we develop trust amongst each other and that lays the ground work for confidence which fosters an environment which is conducive to developing business relationships.

An excellent example for our city is our relationship with Japan. By way of our sister city relationship with Kumamoto – which by the way we are celebrating a 25-year anniversary – educated us as a community about the correct protocol when dealing with Japanese delegations. Our people to people engagement with Kumamoto really permeated many of our institutions and after 10 years of relationship development, we were able to be in a place that we would be considered for the important investment by Toyota. Today, there are more than 31 companies operating in San Antonio that are headquartered in Japan. We are second to Houston in terms of the Japanese foreign direct investment in Texas, and although it is not a direct consequence of our sister city relationship it is a factor. Over time, important relationships founded in trust and confidence have been developed which have subsequently resulted in the decision of a given company to invest in our city.

RR: Germany is one of the biggest investor nations in the United States and in Texas, and San Antonio has an often-overlooked historical relationship with Germany dating back more than a century. What happened to the short-lived sister city relationship with Dresden? Why did it end, and what efforts are being made to renew ties with Dresden or some other German City?

Gini Garcia's glass chandelier resides in one of the historic castles of Dresden, Germany. Photo courtesy of Gini Garcia.
Gini Garcia’s glass chandelier resides in one of the historic castles of Dresden, Germany. Photo courtesy of Gini Garcia. Credit: Courtesy / Gini Garcia.

If I may say, Germany is an important country for San Antonio in terms of economic development and trade. The alliance agreement signed with Dresden was set for a two year period when it was signed in 2009. It came to a conclusion in 2011 when the agreement expired. The last activity that took place was when our local artist, Gini Garcia, donated a beautiful chandelier to one of the historic castles of Dresden where it hangs today. There is currently an artistic exchange that has just started with the City of Berlin involving San Antonio artists spending residencies in Berlin over the next year.

RR: In the early 1990s, during the administrations of Mayors Lila Cockrell, Nelson Wolf and Bill Thornton, the city intensified its relationship with Monterrey, Mexico’s third largest city and arguably the capital of its free market economy. That relationship has withered through a decade or more of drug violence and organized crime. What’s the status of that relationship?

SD: It is truly sad that the violence in the area has had an impact on the lives of citizens of Monterrey and border area but I would not say our relationship has withered. There is a strong platform based on international economic development that links us to Monterrey at a regional level that has continued to grow over the years. This relationship is 60 years old and has had many stages from cultural and educational exchanges to the development of trade and foreign offices.

Another great example of collaboration between out two cities is the Texas Mexico Automotive Supercluster Initiative led by our colleagues at Bexar County Economic Development. (www.txmxautomotive.com)

Today, Monterrey and the state of Nuevo Leon continue to provide a very important platform for the manufacturing sector, which is also important to us. Recent articles and studies have showed the impact of foreign nationals expanding to the U.S. (see the Los Angeles Times’ “Wealthy, business-savvy Mexican immigrants transform Texas city” and the SABER Institute’s study on the impact of spending by Mexican nationals on our local and regional economy.)

RR: If it were up to you, and San Antonio could develop a sister city relationship anywhere in the world, which city would you choose? Tell us why.

SD: This is a difficult question for me to answer at this moment as there are so many opportunities for us and there is a good reason for each of them. It is unlikely that we will be taking on any new sister city relationships in the near future given that we do have a process.

Sister Cities International's  interactive map at www.sister-cities.org. Click map to follow link.
Sister Cities International’s interactive map at www.sister-cities.org. Click map to follow link.

But you ask me for my opinion so I feel strongly that we do need to look at South America and begin to develop a closer relationship with Brazil. It is a country that plays an important role economically not only on the global scene but also in this hemisphere. There seems to be increasing engagement of our city with Brazil through business and educational exchanges and even in the area of tourism. There is real potential for us to develop stronger relationships that would be beneficial to us. However, at this point, I cannot specify a city since we would have to research a city that is compatible and on par with San Antonio.

RR: Please tell the RR readers exactly what your job entails as the city’s chief protocol officer. Do you advise the Mayor on overseas opportunities and travel, and do you handle all the visiting foreign dignitaries?

SD: I advise, assist and support San Antonio officials on matters of diplomatic procedure and am also responsible for providing assistance in planning visits and welcoming high-level guests, diplomats, foreign officials and other distinguished guests to San Antonio and City Hall – especially in relations to the sister city relationships San Antonio has with its counterparts.

Additionally, I oversee the Casa San Antonio program in Mexico with its offices in Mexico City, Guadalajara and Monterrey. So in answer to your question, our office handles all the logistics for the visiting foreign dignitaries.

On this occasion we have had to create more than 12 different itineraries for our official delegations coming in as well as some of the diplomatic corps members travelling from Houston to join us. Each group has individual needs and requests and we have tried to accommodate as much as possible so that when these delegations go home, they do go back with the best impression possible of our city in every way. In my job, every detail counts.

RR: Any good stories to share about of our VIP visitors?

The Mayor of Gwangju, South Korea will receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Incarnate Word this week. We will have a delegation of more than 23 Koreans who will be here for the conference but will be able to attend the special ceremony in honor of Kang Un Tae.

Additionally, we are sharing our 60th anniversary with Monterrey and our 25th Anniversary with Kumamoto so there is a festive mood and we will be commemorating both relationships while the delegations are in town this week.

Related Stories:

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Part Two: Why San Antonio Should Retie the Knot With Germany

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San Antonio Film Festival 2013: Showcasing Local, National, International Talent

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Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org