Craigavon, Northern Ireland, has been LaGrange’s sister city since 1993, but it had been at least six years since anyone from there visited LaGrange.
That changed this week as the city’s mayor and three others took a whirlwind tour of business, industry and culture here.
“The downtown has changed a lot,” said Lewis Porter, Craigavon’s sister city liaison and the only one of the four visitors to have come to LaGrange previously. He made the last trip six years ago.
“The Kia plant is impressive,” Porter said. “The new (Troup County Government Center) is big and West Georgia Tech has a wonderful new building. But the one thing that never changes is the great welcome we get.”
The visitors arrived in LaGrange on Tuesday and have spent the week attending LaGrange City Council’s regular meeting, touring Kia Motors and several health care facilities, including the hospital, Emory Clark-Holder Clinic and Troup Cares. They also visited LaGrange College, West Georgia Tech, downtown and Interface, among other sites.
This weekend the group will see the Antiquities Center and the LSPA production of “Little Mermaid.”
While other visits to LaGrange have been more social, this one was specifically designed to give the Craigavon representatives a look at business and government, particularly health care. Joining the delegation this time was Martin Kelly, a member of the Ministerial Health Infrastructure Board and Programme Director for the Regional Primary Care Infrastructure Programme in Craigavon.
“It’s been particularly intensive for Martin, since he’s the only representative from health care on the trip,” Porter said.
Northern Ireland has a government-run health care system with free access to primary care, Kelly said. The health care is funded through taxes.
“The quality of the facilities is great (in LaGrange),” he said.
Kelly spent time talking with local physicians and other health care workers and is fully aware of the debate over health care in the United States in recent years.
“I think the answer is somewhere in between (the U.S. system and the one in Northern Ireland),” he said.
Craigavon Mayor Carla Lockhart is the city’s youngest-elected mayor at 28 and wanted to make the trip to “renew links” the city has had with LaGrange in the past.
“The welcome we have received has been phenomenal,” she said. “You have a hive of industry here. Information sharing is key.”
One of Lockhart’s goals for Craigavon is to rejuvenate the youth and decrease youth unemployment, which is high. She’s working on a program to match young people with entrepreneurs particularly in technology and creative arts.
“The world is getting much smaller (through technology),” she said.
Nicola Wilson, Craigavon Borough Council’s head of Economic Development, also was on the trip. She said LaGrange has a lot of big firms, while Craigavon is considered a “small firms” economy with companies with about 50 employees each.
Not only would Craigavon like to use knowledge it receives of LaGrange’s businesses, the city would like to see more exchanges of expertise between LaGrange and Craigavon.
Porter said Craigavon has started a “How do you do?” initiative, where people in LaGrange can be matched with their counterparts in Craigavon to see how things are done.
The Craigavon Cowboys would like to meet up with the LaGrange College football team to compare notes, and a local printer also wants to be matched to a printer in LaGrange.
“If individual organizations have new ideas, we just want to see if we can exchange best practices,” Porter said.
A return trip to Northern Ireland isn’t planned in the near future, said Margaret Ross, president of LaGrange International Friendship Exchange, the city’s sister city program.
However, the city will see more Northern Ireland visitors. The band Live Issue, a country gospel group, is expected to be here for the July 4 holiday, she said.