In the fall of 2016, leaders of Greenville, SC and Kortrijk, W. Flanders began planning a visit to cement their Sister City relationships.
It was a long-dormant relationship that had been revived that summer by a trip of Greenville representatives to Belgium.
SC Connect was asked to facilitate, and began working with Greenville Sister Cities International, the City of Kortrijk and the chambers of commerce of both Greenville and West Flanders.
“I needed someone to actually go around and make connections,” said Stijn Van de Velde, who led the Sister Cities effort. “There’s nothing like physical contact, eye-to-eye meetings and handshakes on location.”
“People in responsible positions also want to be approached in a professional manner, and SC Connect does that,” he said.
Relationship Began a Century Ago
The trip would build on a relationship that began during World War I, when the US Army’s 30th Infantry Division that trained in Greenville participated in the Battle of the Somme in Flanders during the First World War.
The relationship accelerated during the textile industry’s heydays, when Greenville billed itself as the “Textile Capital of the World” and hosted Belgian business leaders at its international convention. Friendships strengthened through the years with garden club exchanges, photography exhibits and student exchanges between Furman University and the Catholic University of Leuven (KULAK) in Kortrijk.
Things formalized in 1990 when Kortrijk invited Greenville representatives to ceremonies marking Kortrijk’s 800th anniversary.
Since the 1990s, Kortrijk and Greenville have evolved away from textile-based economies. Greenville has attracted large manufacturers, such as BMW and Michelin, as it developed a reputation for precision engineering and advanced manufacturing.
Kortrijk, with its many family-owned businesses, developed a unique culture of creativity that inspires its flourishing manufacturing and design industries. Today, its medieval city hall anchors a modern region known for such companies as Delta Lighting, Barco, Bekaert and many others that integrate smart design into manufacturing.
Building a 21st Century Partnership
Van de Velde, a West Flanders native but now a Greenville businessman, organized the trip of Greenville representatives to Kortrijk in June of 2016. That led to plans for a return trip of Kortrijk leaders to Greenville in the spring of 2017.
Working from Belgium, SC Connect worked first to create an exchange that brought a marketing specialist from the W. Flanders VOKA to the Greenville Chamber of Commerce for a week. The exchange deepened the ties.
Then, as Van de Velde pulled the visit together from Greenville, SC Connect met with Kortrijk leaders from education, government and business to organize the Belgian delegation. That involved multiple trips to City Hall, Rotary Clubs, non-profit offices and the chamber of commerce.
The result: 11 Belgians made the trip, including Kortrijk Mayor Vincent Van Quickenborne and representatives from Catholic University of Leuven, DesignRegion Kortrijk, HOWEST University and VOKA-W. Flanders. They were joined by the Belgian Consul and trade representatives from Atlanta for a week-long visit.
The groups mixed well — so well, in fact, that the two mayors disappeared at one point during the farewell dinner, sneaking off to a reception where the Greenville mayor needed to appear before returning to the Kortrijk party.
Since that visit,
- Furman and HOWEST have restarted discussions about how their students and teachers can work together.
- Nanotechnology researchers at KULAC and Clemson have begun exploring collaborations, and
- Discussions are underway for ways to connect high school age students from both communities.
“I think it wouldn’t have worked without SC Connect,” said Van de Velde. “Without the eyes and ears, without the boots on the ground, the face to face meetings, the glue to hold things together.”