Board OKs sister city plan with Thailand
By Tom Joyce – firstname.lastname@example.org
In addition to the U.S. government, Mount Airy is doing its part for foreign relations — as evidenced by approval being given Thursday afternoon for a sister city arrangement with a community in Thailand.
By a 5-0 vote, the city board of commissioners decided to move ahead with a plan for Mount Airy to become a sister city with Samutsongkhram, in that Southeast Asian nation about 9,000 miles away.
The common denominator between Mount Airy and Samutsongkhram, is Eng and Chang Bunker, who are known as the Original Siamese Twins. They were born in Thailand and settled here in the 1800s, each raising large families on their respective farms.
Zack Blackmon Jr., one of the numerous Siamese Twins descendants living in this area, had asked city officials last week to approve the sister city arrangement during their annual planning retreat, which was finalized Thursday.
Along with furthering an already thriving cultural exchange with representatives of the Royal Thai Embassy in Washington who attend an annual Siamese Twins reunion in Mount Airy, the move could be good for business, Blackmon says.
That includes promoting visitation between the sister cities, given that Eng and Chang have legendary status in their homeland and Thai citizens might like to see the place where the twins spent their later years.
“I just think it’s a fantastic opportunity that might lead to increased tourism and economic development,” Commissioner Steve Yokeley said at Thursday’s meeting.
Other city officials agreed.
“My comment would be, ‘what’s not to like?’” Commissioner Jon Cawley said of the sister city idea.
Both Cawley and the board’s Jim Armbrister said they hope becoming a sister city will be a springboard for some site being developed here which Thai and other tourists can visit and learn about the history of the famous pair.
Yokeley pointed out that only a minimal investment is required, including a yearly membership fee for the state sister city program of several hundred dollars. Through its involvement, Mount Airy will receive assistance from a program coordinator.
“I think the investment in a sister city would be an investment in Mount Airy,” Blackmon had said last week when the idea was first pitched. “In the long run, who knows what it could turn into?”
Such programs typically are run locally by committees of volunteers, with Blackmon saying Thursday that the one here will piggy-back with the existing tourism bureau for website and other purposes. He also hopes to elicit the support of the Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce.
Feeling is mutual
With local officials generally excited about Mount Airy becoming a sister city, the question arose Thursday about the sentiments of their counterparts in Samutsongkhram, Thailand.
“Do they know what we’re doing here?” Blackmon said of the province from which Eng and Chang hailed. “The answer is yes — they are very excited about it — the leaders in that province are certainly aware of this.”
The sister city arrangement will require the signing of a memorandum of understanding by both parties. “And we would go through the embassy to get that done,” Blackmon said.
He said it is hoped that a joint signing ceremony can occur this July when Thai officials again plan to visit for the Siamese Twins reunion, but this is still up in the air.
“Are you going to be the ambassador for Mount Airy?” Mayor David Rowe jokingly asked Blackmon, who replied that he will volunteer any way he can.
Blackmon predicted that years from now, the city officials who took the action Thursday will look back on it and say, “We made a good decision.”
There were some questions aired at the meeting about the prospects for continued good diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Thailand, given uncertainties over America’s presidential election this year and a military takeover in Thailand.
However, Blackmon said those issues at high levels of government should not disrupt a down-to-Earth relationship between Mount Airy and Samutsongkhram.
“Being a sister city is a people-to-people thing.”
Audit pact OK’d
In other action Thursday afternoon, Mount Airy officials approved a contract with Martin Starnes & Associates, a Hickory accounting firm that has been auditing the city’s book’s since 2011.
The contract, approved unanimously Thursday, calls for the firm to continue in that role for another five years.
For the present 2015-2016 fiscal year, the audit fee will be $33,000, based on contract documents, and discussion at the meeting indicated that this price will apply for the duration of the pact through June 2020.
State law requires an independent annual review of a city’s financial operations.
In response to a question from Mayor Rowe, who has been in office only since December, City Manager Barbara Jones said the audit contract is bid competitively.
She indicated that in the early going, Martin Starnes & Associates sought $45,000 for the annual audit, but then-city Finance Director John Overton negotiated with the firm for a fee in the $30,000 range.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.