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Severing ties with Kasterlee

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This week’s Fountain Hills History Lesson is just as much about town history as it is about current events.

I was saddened to see that the Sister City relationship with Kasterlee, Belgium has been terminated.

But I guess you have to expect it when there have been no responses to inquiries from the Fountain Hills Sister Cities Corp.

It's too bad, because Kasterlee is a beautiful town about a half hour’s drive from the port city of Antwerp, which is often referred to as the diamond capital of Europe.

If you ever get a chance to spend a vacation in Belgum, I would highly recommend a drive trip through the countryside, with stops in the small towns along the way. Most of them have a memorial in the town center dedicated to the United States troops who lost their lives freeing the Belgian people from German rule in World War II.

You can stop for meals in a number of fine restaurants you will find along the way. You will also find some of the best breweries anywhere. And the only thing that may outnumber breweries is chocolate shops. Mmmm good!!

We were treated like royalty wherever we went. Mayor Jerry Miles became an instant celebrity in his western hat, cowboy boots and 6-foot, 4-inch stature. He was referred to in a front-page story in the Brussels newspaper about our visit as “a John Wayne type”.

The town of Kasterlee was selected when shortly before Jerry Miles was elected mayor in 1996, I approached him and suggested that it would be good if the community joined the Sister Cities program started by President Eisenhower in 1956. Three days after Miles was installed as Mayor, he called me and asked me to form a Sister Cities Committee on behalf of the town.

I set up a committee under the non-profit Fountain Hills Civic Association umbrella. I ran a story in the Fountain Hills Times asking for suggestions on possible cities or towns to be considered. Also, I sought volunteers to serve on the search committee.

One of the respondents was David Jackman, who had traveled on business to a small town close to Antwerp, Belgium called Kasterlee. He said, “It has the feel of Fountain Hills even though we live in a desert setting and Kasterlee is totally green with trees.”

The committee, after much discussion and correspondence with cities in Portugal and Australia, decided on Kasterlee as the first match for a Sister City for Fountain Hills. In May 1998, shortly before he left office, Miles, together with myself, Cyril and Marianne Wiggishoff and Phyllis and Bob Horan, flew to Belgium to meet with Kasterlee Mayor, Walter Otten, and sign a letter of intent to form a Sister City relationship. Signing of the letter of intent occurred on May 31 of that year. As I said earlier, we were treated like royalty. Among activities arranged by Mayor Otten was a visit to the U.S. Embassy in Brussels, including an audience with the U.S. ambassador to Belgium.

Two years later, a group headed by then Mayor Sharon Morgan and me, traveled with a group of Fountain Hills high school students to Kasterlee to sign papers officially creating a Sister Cities relationship between the two communities.

I think there are two factors which could have had an influence on the decision to drop the Sister Cities tie between the two towns.

The first is the Pandemic of the past two years. Belgium was one the of the hardest-hit countries in Europe with more than 34,000 deaths caused by the disease. The Belgians weren’t looking for any more visitors with numbers like that.

The second reason is that all of the main people that had an interest in the success of the program have either passed on, including the three mayors, or they have moved away.

Without the people who were the prime movers behind the selection of Kasterlee as our first Sister City, I can see why interest could wane, and that’s unfortunate.