'It really is like dating:' La Cañada is in the market for a sister city

Last January, the La Cañada Flintridge City Council dedicated $2,500 to kick-start a search for an international sister city in support of the new nonprofit La Cañada Flintridge Sister Cities Assn. and its mission to create cultural inroads through global partnerships.

Local resident Vicki Schwartz spearheaded the effort, inspired by her own student experience in Germany 40 years earlier. She could see several benefits such partnerships could bring to fellow La Cañadans, students and business owners.

Now, one year into what was originally anticipated to be a two-year process, that search has already netted four European candidates, each of which has expressed interest in forging a relationship with La Cañada.

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"It really is like dating," Schwartz said last Wednesday at a meeting held at the La Cañada Flintridge Country Club to introduce the group and its goals to the broader community. "We send a letter and a gift, and we might get a letter or gift back right away or we might have to wait three weeks. It really is an interesting process that we're going through right now."

Roughly 150 attendees turned out to learn more about the cause and the four potential sister cities being considered — Bad Homburg and Oberursel, both in Germany, and the Spanish cities of Donostia-San Sebastian and Villanueva de La Cañada.

They learned parent organization Sister Cities International pairs cities with similar demographics, industries and features. Currently, more than 2,300 partnerships exist among more than 150 nations.

With that in mind, Schwartz and LCF Sister Cities Assn. board members chose to highlight La Cañada's high-achieving schools, proximity to Los Angeles and its being home to Descanso Gardens and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. They have involved leaders from those institutions in the selection process.

Likewise, the four cities being considered have thriving tourism industries, public gardens and marketplaces, and the two Spanish locations are close to the European Space Agency's Astronomy and Planetary Science Centre. Letters of introduction and requests to partner have been made to each community, Schwartz said at the Jan. 18 meeting.

La Cañada Mayor Jon Curtis told attendees he hopes the effort will help challenge the stereotype that the city's residents exist inside a "bubble."

"While that may be true from a geographic standpoint, if you listen to what our citizens, students and community groups are doing, we are not in a bubble but in a vibrant community," he said. "Sister cities will strengthen our community and ties among our citizens, schools, churches, businesses and JPL — both internally within the city and externally to the world — through education and cultural exchanges."

Recognizing the fact that student exchange will be a cornerstone of any future sister city relationship, on Sunday the LCF Sister Cities Assn. held a special youth group meeting for students who attend La Cañada High School as well as the three local private high schools.

About 20 students and parents turned out to learn more about current and future opportunities, including student exchange visits, a chance to participate in an annual national youth summit hosted by Sister Cities International and an upcoming Young Artists and Authors Showcase open to members around the world.

"These exchanges are one big component of why you'd want to be part of the youth group," adviser Tamar Tujian told the small crowd.

Schwartz said she's pleased at the momentum that's grown in such a short time.

"This was kind of a dream of mine about a year ago, and I think it's amazing that in less than a year about 20 people have pulled this all together," she said.

To learn more about the effort to find a sister city for La Cañada, as well as opportunities to get involved, visit lcfsistercities.org.

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Sara Cardine, sara.cardine@latimes.com

Twitter: @SaraCardine

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