Strengthening international ties

Sister cities bind Bellingham through culture
and commerce


Photo by Isaac Bonnell

Ross Grier, sister city chairperson for Tateyama, Japan, helps a host family write their names in Japanese at the March 22 welcoming reception for 30 visiting high school students.


Times are tough in the United States, and the slowing economy has citizens and their government looking inward to fix the problems of a faltering banking system and a burst housing bubble.

But the U.S. is not the only country in the midst of economic turmoil right now. If this recession has taught us anything, it is that the world is more connected than we may think..

So how are cities similar to Bellingham faring in other parts of the world?

While we might like to think our city is unique is every way, that is simply not true. In fact, Bellingham has five sister cities that are all similar to Bellingham in one way or another. For starters, these cities are all located along the Pacific Rim. All but one are port towns and most of the sister city relationships started through a business contact.

Many of the sister cities are also riding through tough economic times, due in part to the American financial crisis.

“Due to the burst bubble of the sub-prime loan industry in the U.S., Japan’s real estate industry has also fallen into a sharp depression that it has yet to pull out of,” wrote Michael Van, an American working for the city of Tateyama, Japan, in an e-mail. “Even upon entering into 2009, Japan’s real estate recession continues without end in sight, with powerful companies and local developers alike going bankrupt one after the other. In addition, much of the currently available real estate is not being put to use due to shrinking population levels.”

Truly, this is a global economic meltdown — but that has not soured the relationships between Bellingham and its sister cities.


Tateyama, Japan

Population: 49,000

Sister city since: 1958

The relationship between Bellingham and Tateyama, our oldest sister city, stems all the way back to 1958, two years after President Dwight D. Eisenhower encouraged cities around the country to strengthen international ties in a personal, less governmental way.

The idea was to connect everyday people, not just diplomats and politicians. For more than 50 years, the cultural exchanges between Bellingham and Tateyama have done just that.

For 12 days at the end of March, local families hosted 30 high school students from Tateyama as part of an annual student exchange. In return, the Bellingham High School orchestra visits and performs in Tateyama every few years, the last time being in 2005.

The two cities share many similarities in size and character. Tateyama has a population of 51,000 and sits along the coastline at the entrance to Tokyo Bay. Tokyo is about a three-hour drive away and many of Tateyama’s residents commute to nearby cities for work. And just like Bellingham, Tateyama has been unable to escape a slowing economy, said Tadayoshi Morita, one of two English teachers and chaperones for the visiting group of high school students.

“The Japanese economy is in recession right now,” Morita said. “Some people are asking the government to help, but the government is holding back.”

Due to it’s scenic location and sandy beaches, Tateyama is a popular destination for tourists, vacationing Tokyo residents and retirees, said Ross Grier, the sister city chairperson for Tateyama. And it has been tourism that has continued to grow in the region, despite tough economic times.

Tateyama was traditionally a fishing and farming town and both industries are still surviving, especially flowers and strawberries. But fishing is a third of what it was in the 1980s, said Michael Van in an e-mail. Van is the coordinator of international relations for Tateyama and works in their planning department.

Similarly, agriculture used to be the No. 1 industry in the region, but the number of farmers has dropped by more than half in the past 30 years, Van said. So that leaves tourism.

“This is the one industry that seems to be on the up and up,” Van wrote. “Due in large part to completion of a large, high-speed highway that extends all the way to Chiba City and Tokyo, more and more tourists have been steadily flowing in each year. The additional development of the Tateyama harbor should hopefully bring in even more customers.”


Port Stephens, Australia

Population: 64,000

Sister city since: 1982

Like Tateyama, Port Stephens is a sunny and sandy destination for tourists and retirees. It lies about 160 kilometers north of Sydney and surrounds a natural harbor that is often filled with sailboats.

“Tourism is strong, but changing,” said Jim McCabe, sister city chairperson for Port Stephens. “There are fewer overseas visitors and more local people coming up from Sydney who might have otherwise gone abroad for vacation.”

Unlike Bellingham, though, Port Stephens is a shire, which is more like a county than a city. So Port Stephens is made up of several small cities around the bay — and the small-town feel is attracting new residents, said sister city chairperson Jim McCabe.

“It has a high growth of young and aged and recent developments of aged- care villages, particularly near the water- ways of Port Stephens,” said Glenys Francis, who has served on the Port Stephens council for the past 13 years.

This influx of new residents to the area is keeping home prices steady, Francis said, though “some people from out of the area are selling in a hurry as especially Sydney markets are biting.”

Besides tourism, manufacturing is also strong in the region, spurred on by rumors that Volvo is looking to build a production facility there. Also, the aluminum smelter in nearby Tomago — which had business ties with Intalco Works when the sister-city relationship was formed in the 1980s — has had recent expansions and employs approximately 1,200 people.


Nakhodka, Russia

Population: 150,000

Sister city since: 1989

Stowe Talbot, who owns Bellingham Cold Storage and the Barkley Company, first went to Nakhodka in 1979 on a business trip with his father.

“My dad, Jim, in the 1970s started the first Soviet-American joint venture, called Marine Resources Company International,” Stowe said. “It was unique in that it started at the height of the Cold War. By the mid-1980s, the company was the largest buyer of fish in the world.”

In the following years, Talbot would visit Nakhodka, often and he was also the sister city chairperson for Nakhodka from 1993 to 2003. He eventually met his wife, Nina, there and now travels back there for both family and business.

Though the city has a larger population than Bellingham, Talbot said it feels smaller because it is more compact. The city itself isn’t much to look at, but the surrounding scenery makes up for it.

“Like most newer Russian cities, the architecture isn’t much because it was built during the Soviet era of six- to eight-story concrete buildings,” Talbot said. “But the geography is similar to Bellingham in that it’s all along the coastline — it lines the edge of several bays and it’s very beautiful.”

Fishing and marine trades are still the top industries in this port town, but nearby Vladivostok remains the largest Russian port on the Pacific Coast. Trade is also very important in the Russian Far East, since China, Japan and the Koreas are so close.

Recently, Russia raised the tax on imports, spurring intense outcry from the Far East.

“There have been protests and violence in the Russian Far East because importing is such a large industry,” Talbot said. “Russia makes a huge percentage of its tax base on tariffs. It’s a big source of revenue, at least 50 percent. The idea is that the import tax helps local Russian businesses, but that doesn’t work in the Far East because there are not many manufacturers in the Far East.”

Trade is still thriving in the region despite the global slowdown, but due to the remoteness of the region and other economic factors, prices have yet to drop, Talbot said.

“One thing my wife’s family always complains about is that in Western countries, prices are coming down because of the recession, whereas in Russia everything gets more expensive,” he said. “Prices always seem to go up.”

Photo courtesy of Stowe Talbot

Nakhodka, Russia, has a booming port that serves both a large fishing fleet and international trade.


Punta Arenas, Chile

Population: 130,000

Sister city since: 1996

Punta Arenas is often called the Bellingham of Chile. At 53 degrees south latitude, it lies just a hair farther away from the equator than Bellingham, which sits at nearly 49 degrees north.

Punta Arenas is also the largest and most prominent city at the southern tip of the continent, making it the banking and cultural center for the region. Its location along the Strait of Magellan, combined with a deep water port, makes it the prime jumping off point for research vessels and tour ships heading to Antarctica.

“They have just one pier, but it’s always hopping with boats,” said sister city chairperson Terry Carten, who has been to Punta Arenas three times on research trips with the National Science Foundation to study krill near Antarctica.

Before the Panama Canal was built, Punta Arenas was a major stopping point for ships rounding the Horn. These days, oil tankers coming from drilling platforms in the Strait of Magellan have replaced large cargo tankers.

Timber, which was the impetus behind the sister city relationship with Bellingham, is still a big industry in the region. In the mid-1990s, Trillium Corporation was exploring the possibility of starting a joint venture forestry project on the nearby island of Tierra del Fuego. The business never worked out, but the relationship between the two cities has remained.

In fact, in December 2008, the Bellingham Sister City Association joined with the Whatcom Transportation Authority to send a wheelchair-accessible van filled with medical supplies to a health clinic in Punta Arenas. Both cities also participate in a student exchange program similar to the one established with Tateyama.


Cheongju, South Korea

Population: 637,000

Sister city since: 2008

Bellingham’s most recent sister city, Cheongju, has the largest population and is the first sister city that isn’t located along the coast.

Local entrepreneur Lisa Woo, who is originally from Seoul, helped start the sister relationship by searching for a suitably sized city to partner with.

“Seoul is too big for Bellingham, so I was looking for a smaller city,” she said. “But in Korea, the small coastal towns are too small. Cheongju has a bigger population than Bellingham, but they are similar in size. Most sister cities are similar in their coastal location, but I like the differences about Cheongju. And differences attract, right?”

Since Cheongju is also a university town, Woo hopes to someday establish student exchanges with Western Washington University.

Along with a large technology industry, Cheongju is most known as the birthplace of “Jikji,” a Korean Buddhist book that is the world’s oldest document printed with movable metal type. Though the Jikji is kept at the National Library of France, Cheongju has a museum at the original temple site where the book was printed.

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