A group of 18 mayors and local economic development specialists from Ukraine visited Sykesville Thursday, Sept. 20 to learn about local government, nonprofits and their relationship in creating a lively business culture.
What do a group of Ukrainian diplomats have in common with the town of Sykesville?
Not much, yet. But that’s why they visited the small town in southern Carroll County on Thursday with eyes wide open, ears ready to listen and minds ready to learn.
“We’re on a project called DOBRE, it’s funded by USAID, and we’re bringing 18 Ukrainian mayors and local economic development experts here to the U.S. to learn models of local government and economic development,” said Scott Annis, program director with International City/County Management Association.
“Right now in Ukraine they’re consolidating a lot of smaller communities into kind of county-level governments,” Annis told the Times, “and they’re looking at how they can implement a lot of economic development strategies that they currently don’t have there.”
First it was a local government briefing in Sykesville’s Town House with Town Manager Aretha Adams.
“The participants [were] eager to learn how local economic development is set here, how [nonprofits] help to stimulate growth of existing business, development of entrepreneurship,” said Vitaliy Yurkiv, an economic development specialist from Kyiv, Ukraine. “We were excited to walk around and see businesses and learn from them how the town helps them to develop.”
And then a tour of downtown was led by Julie Della-Maria, executive director of the Downtown Sykesville Connection. The France native proudly cued country music on the town’s brand-new wireless, outdoor sound system on Main Street, which she could control from her smartphone.
Della-Maria hoped to share some of the reasons she fell in love with Sykesville years ago, she told the Times. “There’s a little bit of Europe for me” in the town, she said.
With the help of two interpreters, Della-Maria guided the tour. First it was the gazebo by Town House and then a quick walk down the street to Patapsco Distilling, where owner Scott Jendrek gave the eager group of visitors a tutorial on making fine liquor — and poured them a few samples.
“We make vodka, bourbon, gin ... and we do it all right here. It comes in the building all grain, we have a mill in the back, then they mash and distill it,” Jendrek told the group. “Which would you rather try vodka or bourbon?”
“Bourbon,” the group of Ukrainians enthusiastically responded, almost unanimously. So Jendrek lined clear plastic tasting cups along the bar and poured away.
“To your business,” said interpreter Anna Richardson, as the foreign government officials clinked their bourbon samples. In Ukraine it’s customary to toast before you drink, she explained.
The distillery was a hit, but so were the other businesses the group visited, like Revive & Company, a home interiors boutique.
“There’s a very authentic spirit of this city, the Main Street and small unique businesses and the distillery,” Svitlana Spazheva, mayor of the Pokrovska community in Ukraine, said via Richardson. “We enjoyed very much our visit to the local distillery.”
The Ukrainian guests took to heart some principles of American-style democracy.
“What we have felt here is what they say, the pyramid of power, it comes from below,” Spazheva said. “First the people, they are the foundation, and then the government and then the incentives and taxes. But first is the interest of the people.”
After a quick Main Street walking tour, which included a stop for cowboy hat selfies at western shop Cowboys & Angels, the group returned to Town House for a farmers market informational session.
Main Street in Sykesville was fairly quiet Wednesday morning, in between short bursts of country music. The music was coming from outdoor speakers that were being installed that morning through the Downtown Sykesville Connection and its collaboration with local businesses.
“Do you have any sanitary requirements for the parking lot where the farmers market is?” a visitor asked Beth Currence, the farmers market director. “What happens between October and April?” another asked.
“Well, we have a bathroom with running water,” Currence answered. And during those months, it’s winter here, so local produce isn’t available, she explained.
The group of local Ukrainian leaders were quick to recognize concepts they could apply at home in building their communities.
Nonprofits are important, Spazheva, Nataliia Kliuchyk and Vasyl Telep said through Richardson, a Burtonsville native. The nonprofit community hasn’t developed yet in Ukraine, Richardson relayed, and they do not provide services like in the U.S.
“The farmers market is one of the more interesting topics for our participants,” Yurkiv said. “They are planning to establish farmers markets or improve their existing farmers market. They’re also thinking about the concept of placemaking ... junior market and music sections at the regular farmers market [which Sykseville’s includes] represents placemaking.”
It was clear the Ukrainian visitors tried to absorb as much as possible during their Sykesville experience — they only got to be there one day before they head to Havre de Grace next on their tour.