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Sisters aren't visiting kin

Largo's ties with Tosayamada, Japan, have weakened. Would a sister city in Mexico make more sense?

Published November 22, 2004

LARGO - It's lunchtime at Largo High School - time for a special meeting of the Japanese Friendship Club.

Thirty-eight students crowd into a classroom, facing a brightly-colored batik flag depicting a fierce samurai. Largo Lions Club members George Feaster and Anne Scofield talk about their recent trip to Tosayamada, Japan for the 35th anniversary of the sister-city agreement with Largo and Tosayamada's 50th anniversary.

They show photographs, and present principal Jeffrey Haynes with a package of Japanese books and a too-small blue Japanese robe. They pass around crunchy sweet potato fries for the students to sample.

The sister-city agreement started 35 years ago, Feaster tells the students, when two Lions Club district governors met at a meeting. They decided that the Largo club would be affiliated with its counterpart in Tosayamada. That agreement was extended to the city.

"It's quite a deal," said Feaster, who's been to Tosayamada six times.

Feaster and Scofield renewed the sister-city agreement this summer in a formal ceremony before 300 Japanese officials at the new Kochi University of Technology.

But no Largo officials were present. Travel expenses for the trip, which takes place every 10 years, were cut from this year's budget.

In 1994, it cost $4,223 for Commissioners Harriet Crozier and Jean Halvorsen to travel to Tosayamada for the 25th anniversary of the sister city relationship.

In the past, City Manager Steve Stanton said Largo residents have criticized the city for budgeting money for travel expenses to Japan, questioning how much benefit taxpayers derive from the exchange.

The city used to budget money for the program every year. But while other sister-city programs draw overseas tourists, create business opportunities and spur economic development, Largo's benefits are largely those of friendship and cultural exchange.

"For us to send them oranges, and them to send us knives, we ran into all sorts of problems - quotas, taxes, import fees," said Feaster. Instead, he said, they're "importing friendship."

Feaster says that Tosayamada residents have traveled here to visit and play golf. One of his friends in Japan even named a coffee shop the "Largo Cafe," featuring mementos from Largo. A Tosayamada doctor was so impressed by Sun Coast Hospital he replicated it in his own city and sent Feaster a plane ticket to attend the hospital's dedication ceremony.

"I think it gives us a broader aspect," Feaster said. "Even Largo is international."

But Stanton wonders if it would make more sense to establish relationships with countries with stronger ties to immigrant-rich Florida, such as Mexico, or places involved in conflict with the United States.

"I think the question all cities are asking is, "Is it time to broaden these cultural exchanges to cities other than Japan?"' Stanton said.

Sister city affiliations between the United States and other countries started after World War II, becoming a national initiative when President Dwight Eisenhower proposed a "People-to-People" program in 1956.

By involving groups in citizen diplomacy, Eisenhower hoped to reduce the chance of future world conflicts.

Florida is the second most active sister city participant behind California. Fifty Florida municipalities have 134 sister cities in 49 countries throughout the world. Participating communities pay annual membership dues ranging from $135 to $1,730, depending on population.

Programs such as the one in Chicago, which maintains some 22 sister cities, a director and several staff members, have taken off. Cities search for sister cities on the Web site, Cortazar, Mexico, for example, is looking for a U.S. sister.

Largo used to be more active in the program, paying about $12,000 to accommodate Tosayamada officials during its 30-year sister-city relationship celebration. A Tosayamada drum troupe even forked out $47,000 to ship a two-ton drum from Japan to Largo for a 1989 festival.

Tosayamada officials plan on attending Largo's centennial celebrations in June. Teachers there have asked Scofield if they can send their children here to practice English. Residents could visit Largo, a city with which they're familiar, instead of going to Disney World, Scofield said.

"It's an opportunity for our town - which is the city of progress - to have a more global feeling and be connected to other parts of the world, not just Pinellas County," she said.

Perhaps the biggest benefit for Largo has been educational.

Several Largo High students and teacher Deborah Pettingill have traveled to Tosayamada, raising money for their own travel expenses. They frequently exchange e-mails and gifts, and are trying to learn Japanese.

"It really broadens their horizons," said Pettingill, who's also hosted students from Tosayamada. "They really come back with a different view of the world. They learn how to survive not knowing the language, learn to communicate in ways other than talking."

A Largo High graduate who is studying Japanese in college and plans to teach English in Japan helped found the Japanese Friendship Club.

Only four students were members when the club first started, Pettingill said. "Now it's just gangbusters."

-- Shannon Tan can be reached at or 445-4174.

[Last modified November 22, 2004, 01:19:19]

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