Darrell Bradley, Mayor of Belize City, reading the RoundTable.                                   RoundTable photo

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With the weather forecast promising a very slow retreat form winter, Evanstonians should consider paying a visit to one of our proud sister cities – like Belize City, Belize, in the Central American tropics south of Mexico. The RoundTable did exactly that, sitting down with Darrell Bradley, Mayor of Belize City, to discuss what the sister city relationship meant to his city and what Belize City has to offer Evanston.

“We have always had a vibrant sister city relationship with Evanston,” said Mayor Bradley. Belize City sought a sister city relationship because “a large part of the Belize diaspora lives in the Chicago area,” he said, but Belize City remains interested in “sister cities very close to us” in “vision, demographics, and size.” They were not interested in “too large” cities. “We were not interested in being Chicago’s sister city,” Mayor Bradley said.

Belize City proper has a population of about 80,000, very comparable to Evanston’s 76,000.

The climate however, could not be more different. Located on the coast of the Caribbean Sea in Central America just south of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, Belize has always been a bit of an outlier. As a British colony surrounded by regions controlled by Spanish or Portuguese colonials, Belize became a haven for pirates and other outlaws because of its geography. Reefs and mountains form natural barriers that made traveling to Belize difficult, if not treacherous.

Access has become much easier however, and cruise ships have discovered the beauties of Belize. Ships arrive several times a week, anchoring in the bay outside the city’s ports and transporting cruisers by the thousand, from ship to shore, boat after boat.

“For us,” said Mayor Bradley, “we have to take a strategic development point of view. Emulate strategies, create economic partnerships. Our cayes are beautiful.”

Belize City was originally the capital city, explained the Mayor. “The infrastructure here is a little older, a remnant of our colonial history with Great Britain.” Founded in 1638, Belize City was a source of longwood for Britain, said the mayor.

Along with the colonists, though, Belize experienced waves of different cultures. “Here, you can find Mayan influence African culture, Chinese, Indian, American, Canadian… We pride ourselves – one of the things we pride ourselves [on] – in terms of the country is diversity,” said the mayor, who is a practicing attorney. Belizians have a “high degree of tolerance” for other cultures and ideas, he said.

Through it all, “we remain politically stable,” he said. “Belize, independent in 1981, has always had a peaceful transfer of power since that date.”

Belize offers world-class scuba diving and snorkeling in tropical weather for Evanstonians to dream about and hopefully enjoy. Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl spent time there, traveling the country.

“I love Belize,” she said.

At the same time, Evanston has much to offer Belize City.

Belize City officials came to Evanston in 2013. Mayor Tisdahl “graciously agreed” to the visit and meetings with “her and key members of the administration,” said Mayor Bradley. The key areas Belize wanted to learn about, he said, were health and citizen outreach.

“We want to encourage exercise, bicycling” for our residents, he said. Belize City wanted to install more bike racks and take other steps to make the city more bike friendly.

Mayor Bradley said Belize City also recently “created a department of citizen outreach [hoping to] engage citizens as active partners in decision-making.” Evanston’s public outreach initiatives helped with ideas and hands-on training as Belize expanded “radio meetings, TV, Facebook, Internet,” and other social media outlets “promoting interaction” between the government and residents, said Mayor Bradley.

Overall, Belize City officials visited Evanston seeking, “improvement in government,” the mayor said. More specifically, he said, officials studied Evanston’s public interaction, because they want Belize City’s “website to be more interactive.” “We had a series of productive meetings” and gathered “strategies we can use” in areas such as the “budget, programs, and how government works.”

Walking through Belize City, the differences between the two cities are immediately apparent. Belize is not a wealthy country, despite the impression made by the many luxury cruise ships anchored there. Belize City’s streets need surfacing, the buildings are crumbling, the pace is slow, and the general atmosphere is one
of a poorer country.

Mayor Bradley wants to change that. He believes in infrastructure as the backbone of economic expansion, and said he has “launched a municipal bond” for such improvements. Park space is also important, he said, and Belize City recently upgraded an existing park and built an entirely new one. The new park, Lindbergh Park, marks the spot where Charles Lindbergh landed in 1929 on one of his trips across the waters. There is a Lindbergh Field with a “marker where the plane actually stopped [and a] picture of the plane on the landing strip,” he said.

“A lot of tours come to the shore, then immediately leave,” said Mayor Bradley, with cruise visitors staying in Belize City only long enough to hop on a scuba boat or a tour van elsewhere. He said the city planned a “large concert on Valentine’s Day” and improvements to the waterfront to try to encourage tourists to stay in town. “We want to create experiences for tourists – and residents,” he said. The goal is to “experience development within the city, keep tourism dollars here.”

Mayor Bradley believes a sister city relationship with Evanston can help. “We want to be focused in our relationship with Evanston,” he said.

Evanstonians can profit from a trip to Belize as well, especially when the weather outside looks frightful.