GR leaders educate themselves on sister city


Mayor Rosalynn Bliss, center, recently led a Grand Rapids contingent to Zapopan, Mexico, as part of the city’s sister city initiative. Courtesy GR Chamber

Area community leaders took a trip last month to strengthen ties with the Grand Rapids sister city of Zapopan, Mexico.

Led by the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, Mayor Rosalynn Bliss, City Manager Mark Washington and other business leaders representing the local sister cities committee visited to renew the agreement between the cities, according to Omar Cuevas, the chamber’s VP of sales and marketing.

“One of the things that Sister Cities International strives for is not only to learn from each other, but it's actually to engage in business opportunities,” said Dante Villarreal, VP of business and talent development for the chamber.

He said local leadership historically has not taken advantage of the opportunity here, but with new city leadership and the chamber being engaged, leaders are more greatly considering how the relationships can benefit local business growth.

“It was also about bringing individuals that could learn a little bit about the culture and have them experience the warmth of the people of Zapopan, so then we can choose the narrative,” Villarreal said.

“And they have heard from the mayor, they have heard from us, that Grand Rapids is more about creating bridges than creating walls.”

Zapopan, which means “the place of sapodilla fruit,” became a Grand Rapids sister city in 2008. Zapopan is part of the greater metro area of the Guadalajara metropolitan area, often referred to as the “Silicon Valley of Mexico.” The area also is the birthplace of mariachi music and tequila.

Grand Rapids’ other sister cities include Omihachiman, Japan; Bielsko-Biala, Poland; Ga District, Ghana; and Perugia, Italy.

Working with Zapopan’s offices of economic development and international relations, planners crafted an agenda that allowed the Grand Rapids leaders to learn about the sister city’s entrepreneurship efforts and more, Cuevas said.

They had the chance to see and learn about the city’s biotech and biomedical arena, the chamber of commerce and the growing craft brewing industry. They attended the area’s annual beer festival, where Bliss was onstage representing the U.S. and “Beer City, USA.”

They also met with the state immigration director to talk about what Grand Rapids is doing to create a welcoming environment for new Americans through the Gateways for Growth initiative.

“What people hear on the news creates a different perception for them,” Cuevas said. “And I think for them it was not only refreshing, but I think it was warming to hear that Grand Rapids values not only diversity and inclusion but even a sense of belonging where we see the Mexican culture as an addition to what makes us great here in Grand Rapids.”

Cuevas said the city is working on building a medical cluster as more American retirees look to the area as a destination. 

Cuevas said leaders from Zapopan would like to visit Grand Rapids, tentatively in June, to meet with leaders in the local medical and biomedical industries, as well as learn about how they can pursue more “public-private partnerships.”

The chamber would like to bring another group to Zapopan in the spring, opening up the opportunity to more members. 

Trip planners will tailor the agenda to accommodate the interests of anyone interested in going on the next trip, whether they’re interested in learning more about how to provide health care to Latinos, connecting with a certain industry for potential business opportunities, strengthening cultural competence or more.

Villarreal said anyone in Grand Rapids should be interested in the partnership, given that one of the largest minority groups in the area is Hispanic Latinos.

He said the chamber is focusing on building a relationship primarily with Zapopan because it’s the only sister city in this hemisphere and has the most potential for direct engagement.

“I think there's a lot of say in us letting them know that just like them, we have our own challenges here (as) they have their own challenges there, but how can we leverage our sister cities project to bring us together for the common goal,” Cuevas said. 

The mayor’s and city manager’s offices did not respond to an inquiry at press time.

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