Hundreds traveled to Toledo this week seeking good conversation, new relationships, and lasting bonds.
These visitors weren't lonely singles. They were delegates from all over the world looking to forge and strengthen international connections.
The four-day International Sister Cities Conference wound down yesterday with workshops, tours, and a 7 p.m. closing ceremony at SeaGate Centre. The evening event included groups performing dances from different cultures.
Sister Cities International is a program that links similar cities and towns in different countries to promote economic development and cross-cultural understanding.
“The conference has been well-organized and availed us a good platform to discuss our determination to foster further relationships,” said Joseph Sokoine, first secretary of the Tanzanian embassy in Washington.
Activities for the more than 630 participants included youth forums and panel discussions. Workshops explored subjects ranging from poverty alleviation in developing countries to international business development.
“The workshops were filled to capacity and people were really engaged,” Tim Honey, executive director of Sister Cities International, said.
The attendance, which matched that of the conference in Atlanta last year, was larger than expected. John Henry Fullen, executive director of Toledo's Sister Cities program, said many people thought that attendance would be down because of travel concerns since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and Toledo's comparatively small size.
Delegates from both the United States and abroad said Toledo's hospitality and clean downtown impressed them.
“The people are very warm,” Dirlei Cedeno, from the Dominican Republic, said. He toured the area on TARTA and listened to soulful guitar riffs at the Blues Festival downtown on Friday night. “I feel like I have lived here, like it's my backyard.''
A caravan of boats bearing the flags of many nations floated past the Blues Festival. Delegates sailed from the Toledo Yacht Club past downtown on a Maumee River tour.
The tight security was another outstanding feature of the Toledo conference, several participants said.
Mayor Jack Ford said Toledo police officers did overtime shifts to ensure adequate coverage for the event. Costs for the overtime have not been calculated.
The mayor attended many of the conference activities, as well as meeting with several delegates in private sessions.
“We shut down my normal schedule for the past three days,” Mayor Ford said. “I thought it was a great opportunity not only to be a part of good will among cities, but to show off Toledo hospitality.”
Community volunteers made delegates feel welcome and helped the event run smoothly. Toledo had almost 300 volunteers, as compared to just dozens of people who volunteered at the Atlanta conference, Mr. Honey said.
Some visitors from abroad made personal connections with Toledo residents. A group of Polish teenagers helped clean up central city neighborhoods. One woman was so grateful that she passed out dollar coins to the whole group, they said.
Some of Toledo's own youth contributed to the conference. The Young Artists at Work program, made up of at-risk local youth, presented a quilt to the conference at last night's ceremony. The 60- inch by 90-inch quilt will be on display at future conferences.
The International Sister Cities Conference concludes at 10 a.m. today with a nondenominational prayer for peace service at Fifth Third Field.