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Cities reaching out for cultural connection

By Mike Genet

In its centennial anniversary year, Sugar Creek has taken the first steps to a Sister City connection, one that harkens to the city’s deep Eastern European roots.

Sugar Creek and Independence plan to form a relationship with Martin, a city of about 58,000 in the northern part of Slovakia. That country had been part of Czechoslovakia until the split in 1993 left the Czech Republic to the east. Czechoslovakia had been formed in the aftermath of World War I and prior to that had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

A view from the central area of the city Martin, Slovakia, which is proposing a Sister City agreement with Sugar Creek and Independence.

The Independence City Council and Sugar Creek Board of Aldermen have approved resolutions this month to work on an agreement with Martin. The next steps, former Sugar Creek Mayor Stan Salva said, are to put together a steering committee and have a virtual meeting with leaders in Martin to affirm their commitment. From there, they obtain recognition from Sister City International and arrange for an official ceremony. 

“We’re taking it step by step, and we’re almost there,” said Salva, who is president of the Czech and Slovak Club of Greater Kansas City. 

The city of Martin, Slovakia is working on developing a Sister City relationship with Sugar Creek and Independence.

For Independence, it would be a second Sister City connection. Two years ago, citizens celebrated the 40th anniversary of the relationship with Higashimurayama, Japan. Sugar Creek Mayor Mike Larson said Independence’s experience is helpful in Sugar Creek forming this agreement.

Independence Mayor Eileen Weir said the plan is “neat opportunity.”

“Independence certainly has a long history, and a successful one, of maintaining a Sister City relationship,” she said.

The idea came about after Kansas City police officer Robert Pavlovic returned from a recent one-year special assignment in Slovakia with the U.S. Army. Pavlocic’s wife, Irina Kobzeva-Pavlovic, who first came to the U.S. as a Russian exchange student, is an adviser with Sister City International. They, Salva and Ross Marine, former CEO of the current Truman Medical Centers Lakewood hospital and now the honorary consul of the Slovak Republic to the Midwest, based in Kansas City, started putting the plan in motion stateside.

Pavlovic called his time in Slovakia “absolutely amazing.”

“During that time, I discovered enormous enthusiasm there about American culture, but there’s not many avenues to connect to the U.S.,” he told the Independence council. “The warmth of the people is absolutely the center of the culture.”

Salva is certainly familiar with Martin.

“It happens to be about 30 minutes from the village my mother was born in,” he told the Independence council. “Culturally it’s a fantastic choice. They were very excited about Independence. They were a little excited about Sugar Creek, because obviously we’re not as big as Independence, but we do have a lot of activities with Slavic influence in our city.”

“My first visit was back in 1994, and I’ve been there now 14 times. I have a lot of second cousins there.”

Salva’s grandfather worked at the Standard Oil refinery, which had opened in 1904 and operated into the 1980s. The refinery, along with the cement factory, attracted many immigrants to the area for jobs. Salva’s father was born in Hannibal, Missouri, in 1908 after that family immigrated from Eastern Europe, and his mother’s family moved from Slovakia when his mother was 3 years old. 

The city of Sugar Creek was officially incorporated in 1920, and family generation stories such as Salva’s can be found in many households in Sugar Creek. 

“That’s our history. That’s where those people came from, to work at the refinery,” Larson said.

Over the past couple years, the mayor has attended ceremonies for the 100th anniversary of the Pittsburgh Agreement, which formed Czechoslovakia.

The pandemic has shuttered many plans or traditional celebrations in Sugar Creek that would have helped celebrate the city’s centennial – events such as a historical society open house and the long-running Slavic Fest. Larson said there’s a “glimmer of hope” they might be able to have a time capsule opening in November and gather to light the Christmas tree in December, but he’s not certain those will happen. The Sister City plan, he acknowledges, is a welcome addition. 

“It’s really going to be a neat thing,” Salva said.