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Sister Cities Commission snubs name change

Lansing mayor pitches case for more regional support

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What’s in a name?

In the case of the Lansing Regional Sister Cities Commission, it could be how much financial support the commission gets from the Schor administration.

For its 25-year existence, the only government to support the commission has been Lansing’s.

“I’m advocating for the effort on that commission to become truly regional in its approach,” Lansing Mayor Andy Schor explained. And if it cannot, he has told the commission’s board, maybe you should take regional out of the name.

Last year, Schor cut the commission’s funding from $30,000 to $20,000 and sent a message: Get funds from other local governments to make up the difference.

This year, Schor’s proposed budget maintains funding at $20,000 – but he delivered the same message about the name.

That message is not sitting well with the commission’s board members. A recent email exchange among board members that was obtained by City Pulse soundly rejected Schor’s suggestion to remove the word “regional.” It would only work to devalue the role of neighboring cities, officials contended, sending a largely counterintuitive message to the local community.

“The word ‘regional’ is important here,” commission Chairwoman Barbara Mason said in an interview. “We really do represent not just the city, but the entire Greater Lansing region in terms of the activities that we have. At this point, we’ve all decided that we just could not remove the word ‘regional’ from the title. We make a positive impact on the region and not just for the city.”

The private, nonprofit Lansing Regional Sister Cities Commission, which has cultural partnerships with eight cities around the world, was created with the support of former Mayor David Hollister. But the mayor only appoints four of the board’s 25 members, with the rest selected by the board itself.

But he does influence the purse strings, which is what he appears to be doing.

In keeping funding at $20,000 for the next fiscal year, Schor said he was willing to give the commission “another chance” for the commission to rake in some cash from neighboring cities. If not? That appropriation might not be around for another year; Schor wasn’t prepared to make that decision this week.

“Lansing is the only municipality that puts taxpayer dollars into this effort,” Schor explained.

“I requested that the commission to approach some other municipalities as well. If we’re going to be called regional, we must truly become regional. If Lansing continues to be the only community to support it, the name should match that.”

Schor wants to see the commission ramp up its focus on economic development.

“It’s not just a cultural exchange,” Schor said. “This is also about economic growth, jobs and partnerships.”

Schor suggested additional support from neighboring municipalities could help to bolster the overall mission of the commission; it’ll just need to start asking for it. He said its mission should also include a larger emphasis on bringing jobs back to Lansing and attracting international companies into the city as an economic stimulus.

“There needs to be some initiative to approach these other communities, and I want to give them time to do that,” Schor said. “I’d also like to see if they have the ability to bring some jobs to Lansing in the process. We could have some international companies coming into the city, creating jobs and other economic investments.”

The commission has since been working to expand those efforts to meet Schor’s latest requests, officials said. But when Schor proposed the name-change concept a recent meeting, board members — including the four that were appointed by the mayor — shot down the idea. The consensus: The word “Regional” should stay put.

Mason said a special Sister Cities committee, to be headed by attorney Jack Davis, will form this year to ask East Lansing, Haslett Michigan State University and others for cash amid an attempt to leverage additional finances for the commission’s programs. Aside from donations and grant funding, only Lansing has so far been willing to put up the money.

The funds from Lansing help to invite ambassadors from around the world to the region, Mason explained. Student exchange programs — like those at Holt High School — also allow local students to travel abroad. A delegation from Ghana, for instance, is also set to visit medical facilities throughout the region this year, she said.

But it’s also about more than financial support, Mason emphasized. Commissioners include volunteers from across the region — including those that reside in Okemos, Webberville. Other regional organizations like Lansing Community College and the Rotary Club of Lansing also routinely provide services for Sister Cities.

“The commission does a lot of things outside of the city of Lansing,” said board member Janet Reifenberg, a retired teacher from Webberville Community Schools. “We really are, in my opinion, a regional organization. Holt might not give money directly to the commission, but there are families there that support these kids.”

Emails obtained by City Pulse outlined some responses from other members of the commission:

“Our guests from sister cities are not aware, nor care, about the municipal geographic boundaries,” said Jack Schripsema, who also serves president of the Greater Lansing Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The word regional accurately suggests a larger and more influential area encompassing some of our most important assets.”

“We can’t go backwards and move away from the regional focus our city and its partners have been advocating for several years,” added board member Marcie Alling, who also serves on Lansing’s Board of Zoning Appeals.

“This exercise is not where we should be spending our collective energy. Building relationships is,” added board member Paul Shaheen. “Can anyone help the mayor’s office understand the assets he has working with him?”

Mason said the name of her organization should not be viewed as “the primary issue that deters us from globalizing Lansing.” Without the support from others who live and work outside of the city, it would be difficult for the Sisters Cities Commission to exist, she emphasized. Cash is important. But so is regionalism.

“I understand the mayor of a city is supposed to look at the budget and be interested in how money is spent,” Mason added. “His idea isn’t totally off the table, but whether the word ‘regional’ is in the title or not doesn’t mean anything about changes to our mode of operation. We just want to be able to please everybody on this.”

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