Just weeks after returning from a trip to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the sister city or twinning relationship with the residents of Meylan, France, Karen Hatcher has turned her attention to planning to greet the French visitors next year.
That’s how it’s been for 30 years, Hatcher said. The Gonzales Committee on Cultural Affairs, of which Hatcher is president, and the residents of Meylan keep friendships going through the annual trips.
The 14-member Gonzales delegation visited Paris and Meylan May 13-22. The group included seven first-timers and three members from the original trip — Carol and Frank Frederic and Jean Duhe.
The trip has promoted cultural exchanges for years, with the Gonzales group showing their French friends how to cook jambalaya and the Meylan residents sharing culture each year by opening their homes to the Gonzales delegation.
This year, before the trip to Meylan, Hatcher “threw out the idea of an economic development exchange” to the Meylan mayor, she said.
To her surprise, after a visit to a chocolate factory during the trip, the Meylan mayor sent a car to bring Hatcher and Gonzales City Councilman Harold Stewart, who was making his first trip with the group, to a meeting with several French businessmen.
The sat across the table from CEOs of three start-up companies and representatives of four larger firms.
“They wanted to know ‘why Gonzales?’ ” Hatcher said.
Hatcher told the French businessmen that Gonzales was a small town that could provide personal attention to foreign investors and that it was more culturally like Meylan — a city of about 20,00 residents — than other cities in the U.S.
“After 30 years of being friends, it was time to step it up to the next level” and approach the Meylan businesses community about an economic development exchange, Stewart said.
He said that while researching the Meylan area, he learned that there were several French businesses from the Meylan region in the U.S., but none in Louisiana.
Meylan, which has a business incubator to assist new businesses, is known as the Silicon Valley of France, Hatcher said, and known for it technological advancements.
Hatcher recently told members of the Gonzales City Council that two of the businesses she met with were interested in opening businesses in the U.S.
Hatcher is hopeful the recent trip is the start of a new goal for future trips: economic development. Stewart said now he and the other elected officials in Gonzales must work to bring French business to the city.
Stewart said the Meylan mayor has invited Gonzales officials to return in February.
Stewart said he has met with Gonzales Mayor Barney Arceneaux about promoting the city to Meylan businesses and plans to meet with the other City Council members on the idea.
In addition to bringing new business to the area, the trip could result in an educational exchange, Hatcher said.
On the trip were three Ascension Parish teachers and an LSU professor. The educators talked with Meylan educators about having video conferencing sessions between Meylan and Gonzales classrooms in the fall. She said the French students are interested in practicing their English and it would give local students a chance to learn more about students in another part of the world.
Stewart said the economic development and educational exchange opportunities are possible because of the friendship forged by the Gonzales Committee on Cultural Exchange over the past 30 years.
He praised longtime committee members like the Frederics, who have forged relationships by visiting and hosting families through the twinning process.
Hatcher and Stewart said it is rare for a twinning relationship to last more than six or seven years.
Stewart said Gonzales officials could learn a lot from their French counterparts about transportation options and infrastructure. He said that while Gonzales is working on its first roundabouts at intersections, Meylan resident have been using them for years. And, the French city has every type of transportation “you can think of, from high-speed trains to tunnels.”
“I can’t stop talking about the trip,” Stewart said, adding that he hopes to return in February to continue the conservation about bringing business to Gonzales.