This weekend may have been Mother’s Day weekend, but it was also a chance for Westminster to welcome visitors from its sister city more than 4,300 miles away.
Three civic leaders from Paide, Estonia — Paide Mayor Pritt Värk, Council Chairman Aivar Tubli and City Architect Marje-Ly Rebas — arrived Thursday, May 10, and spent six days touring the city and attending events such as the Taneytown Business Breakfast and the Westminster Flower and Jazz Festival. They even managed to catch the Baltimore Orioles-Tampa Bay Rays game Friday night, won by the Orioles.
The partnership between the two cities was established in 2002. The State Partnership Program between Maryland and Estonia began in 1993 after the breakup of the Soviet Union, leading up to Estonia’s entry into NATO and the European Union.
Värk, who took office in 2017 much like Westminster's Mayor Joe Dominick, is the fourth Paide mayor, Tubli is the third council chairman to visit Westminster since the program began.
While visiting the meeting of the mayor and Common Council on Monday, May 14, Värk said he was grateful for the Westminster welcome. Though the partnership had started as a way for Maryland to help Estonia, he said he now hoped it could be an equal partnership between the two.
He presented Dominick with an Estonian soccer jersey with the number 727 on the back, representing the years since the city of Paide was founded. (By comparison, Westminster celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2014).
“In some ways we are really different,” Värk said after Monday night’s city meeting. “Being the mayor is my full-time job. In Estonia the mayor is like the CEO of the city. … Our election system is also quite different as I understand it. The 23 seats of the council are chosen from about 170 candidates.”
After visiting with Carroll Community College, he said there were many ideas to take back to Paide.
“The variety of courses and studies you have — that was amazing. We don’t have anything like that,” he said. “The facility was great … especially because we kind of have an educational reform in Paide. We’re changing.”
He also said the Taneytown Business Breakfast idea was one to copy back home.
“It’s also interesting [that] a lot of private houses and young families are coming here. In Paide, one main issue is that population is decreasing as the young people are going outside of the city. Our capital city has more opportunity for jobs and entertainment,” he said.
In previous years, the partnership has led to cultural and economic exchanges. Estonian youth folk dance groups have come to perform in Westminster on more than one occasion, and members of the Children’s Chorus of Carroll County have visited and sung in Paide.
In 2003, Westminster acquired a work visa to hire Estonian citizen Mari Taalmann, who moved to the city and studied at Carroll Community College.
Sgt. Maj. Thomas Beyard served as the host for the Estonian guests. Beyard, the senior-most enlisted member of the Maryland National Guard and a former city planner for Westminster, has spearheaded efforts to find funding and turn the sister cities program from something on paper to something with more substance. He was recognized as philanthropist of the year in 2017 by the Community Foundation of Carroll County.
Westminster–Paide exchange projects are funded through donations to a Community Foundation of Carroll County fund, which allows activities to be funded by a private source, rather than relying on the Westminster City budget.
The next step for the partnership, it is hoped, is to get Estonian students involved in the activities of Westminster’s Mid-Atlantic Gigabit Innovation Collaboratory, Inc. (MAGIC).
Worldwide, Estonia is noted for its prevalence in cybersecurity, and at the 2017 World Summit on Information Society Forum, Estonia was named the No. 1 country for cybersecurity in Europe.
More visits between the cities are planned for the future.
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“We’ll see who’s going to be the next, whether its students or kids or officials from our government,” Värk said.