Eleven Ukrainian mayors recently came to Springfield to see the future, and for the most part, they decided it works.
The delegation, in town March 15-28 as part of a program underwritten by the U.S. government, say they liked the cleanliness of our city, the friendliness of its residents, and the efficiency of local government. However, at least one said he wasn't too thrilled about our over-reliance on cars.
"Most of the people around here do not walk," quipped Mykola Levchuk, mayor of Tokmak, a town of 36,000. Levhcuk's trip to Springfield was his first to the United States; in fact, he'd never traveled abroad before coming to Springfield.
Levchuk and the other mayors began making plans to visit the capital city in November. The U.S.-Ukraine Foundation and the U.S. State Department provided two translators, and coordinated the visit with the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Since the break-up of the former Soviet Union, leaders of newly independent nations like Ukraine have struggled to introduce the trappings of modern capitalism and democracy. It's been a difficult process: During nearly 70 years as part of the old USSR, Ukraine may have suffered more than any other nation under the Soviet system. By some estimates, almost seven million Ukrainians perished during famines and executions under dictator Josef Stalin.
Since independence in 1991, Ukraine has turned to the West for guidance. Springfield's been part of that exchange of ideas for several years: During her administration, former mayor Karen Hasara made two trips to Ukraine.
"We have been working for some years with [the city of] Svitlovodsk in Ukraine," says Alicia Erickson, a SCVB staff member who helped coordinate the Ukrainians' visit. "In 1998 the city of Springfield wrote a grant to participate with the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation, doing some a mentoring programs with municipal officials. This visit is the latest incarnation of that program," she says.
During their recent visit, the mayors met dozens of local officialsin Springfield,Jacksonville, and Rochester. The tour included a day with the Ukrainian community in Chicago, and after-hours attendance at meetings of the Springfield City Council, Springfield Building and Zoning Commission, and Rochester budget committee. Several evenings were spent at receptions and dinners with local families, including Charles "Chick" andNancy Chapin.
In addition to translators Ludmyla Davis and Matilda Kuklish, the mayors were accompanied by Erickson and Katie Spindell, program escort with SCVB's Springfield Commission on International Visitors.
Stepan Tsapyuk, 50, is serving his second term as mayor of Olexandriya (population 120,000). He is married with three children and two grandchildren. Through an interpreter, he described his impressions. "Your cities are so clean," he said. "They don't have many people on the streets, no crowds.
"We are also impressed by the work of the local government and that they attract to their work a lot of non-government organizations, that the citizens are also involved in the city's life," Tsapyuk added. "I have already 20 different ideas that I would like to implement when I go back to my city."
Erickson says the mayors were impressed by how "quickly things move here" -- including zoning issues. "It's a more streamlined process here than in Ukraine."
Levchuk, the Tokmak mayor, said he was impressed "that the people are very law-obedient and that the community is very involved with all important issues in the life of the community."
His only beef: The group was lodged out west, and didn't have cars. "We were not able to move," he said.
The Ukrainians were housed at the Fairfield Inn on Freedom Drive, in an area of the city that's friendlier to automobiles than pedestrians.
"We put them out there because of the access to restaurants and shopping," Erickson says. "If they're going to be here for an extended period of time, it's nice for them to be walking distance to places. There's a movie theater, Target and Wal-Mart and lots of restaurants."
The mayors had access to a van and driver nearly 24 hours a day, she says.
"I thought they were getting comfortable here by the end of the first week," Erickson says. "At the end of their stay, they weren't speaking English, but it was evident they were comfortable here."
Shopping, while not the reason for the mayors' visit, was a popular option. They twice visited a local medical supply store while in transit to other daytime venues. When their visit to New Salem was cancelled because of the effect of recent rains, the group elected to go shopping. "There was great interest in buying electronics, and gifts for their families at home, a lot of American clothing and tennis shoes," Erickson says.
Despite communications challenges, the mayors were kept busy. "A lot of times with these kinds of groups you have to work to program downtime for them because they get really exhausted because they're in meetings and with people constantly," Erickson says.
Program escort Spindell says she was delighted with her experience working with the Ukrainian delegation, in no small part because of what she learned about her fellow Springfieldians. "I spent two weeks watching Springfield residents, businesses and political communities work tirelessly and without hesitation to educate and entertain this delegation. The mayors were stunned by the graciousness and generosity shown to them. I was not surprised because I have experienced the same spirit since I moved to here 15 months ago. And that's why I'm proud to call Springfield my home."
Spindell has special praise for Maynard Crossland, director of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. "He was awesome," she says. "I asked him if there was any way we could have the mayors visit the [Abraham Lincoln] Presidential Library, and he opened it for us. If it had not been for Maynard, that would have never happened."
Though visits by foreign dignitaries are nothing unusual, groups of 13 at a time, including interpreters are. Erickson says that in 2003, "about 110 internationaldignitaries came through, and we provided some kind of partnership programming during their visits."
Additional visits from Ukrainian citizens are in the works. Details will be announced later this year.