Flint’s Sister CityTogliatti, Russia: GM Town


Founded by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956, Sister Cities International is a nonpartisan 501(c)(3) non-profit which serves as the national membership organization for individual sister cities, counties and states across the United States. Eisenhower’s goal with establishing this organization was to create a network of peace and prosperity between different people around the world. Since his time, Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Obama have served as the honorary chairmen.

According to SisterCities.org, this network unites tens of thousands of “citizen diplomats” and volunteers in 570 member communities with over 2,300 partnerships in 150 countries on six continents. A sister city, county or state relationship is a broad-based, long-term partnership between two communities in two countries. A sister city, county or state relationship is officially recognized after the highest elected or appointed official from both communities signs an agreement, which is focused on mutual benefit.

Early on, partnerships have been created with Seattle, WA and Tokyo, Japan, to repair post-World War II tensions. SCI has improved diplomatic relationships at watershed moments for the past 50 years.

Overall, the organization is a hub for best practices in the field of “citizen diplomacy,” meaning that those citizens who are involved become diplomats for SCI and the city they represent. As a whole, the organization focuses on the exchange in arts and culture, youth and education, business and trade, and community development and technical exchange.

In the past, Flint has been a Sister City to Changchun, Jilin Province, China; Faislabad, Pakistan; and Kielce, Świętokrzysie Voivodeship, Poland. More recently, Flint has an existing relationship with Poltava, Ukraine, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada and Togliatti, Samara Oblast, Russia.

At 22 years, Hamilton, Canada is Flint’s oldest Sister City due to their 52-year CANUSA sport exchange. In addition to the annual sport competition, they have also participated in tree-planting on Flint City Hall property.

Although the Flint chapter has been inactive the past couple of years due to a lack of resources, Larry Ford, the current president, had visited Russia in 1991 – the same year that the Soviet Union disintegrated. Before Sister Cities, Ford was President/CEO of the then Flint Area Chamber of Commerce for 30 years. “My mission was to find business that could come here, or find investment opportunities over there,” Ford explains. What Ford and past Sister Cities President, John Freeman, found with their initial visit to Russia as an eventual Sister City, was that they were continually trying to disprove local propaganda of Americans and changing Cold War mindsets. Part of their mission to promote understanding was to create new opportunities for relationships, such as a Rotary Club, which ended up being one of their successful ventures, along with personal friendships, and professional liaisons.

And of course, with Flint’s chapter, General Motors had been a negotiating point – a common ground – established around the same time as their separate Sister Cities Agreement.

In Russia, 600 miles south of Moscow, an auto-producing town, Togliatti, created a joint venture with GM in 2001. Starting in 2002 at the Togliatti factory, 50,000 GM-AvtoVaz Chevrolet Nivas were produced annually. And despite GM’s bankruptcy, by 2015, they were producing 120,000 annually and increased their staff by 1,400 – nearly doubling in size. In September of 2012, GM and AvtoVaz turned the joint venture into a 50/50 relationship due to a $200 million plant expansion. The Chevrolet Niva, a $14,000 sport-utility vehicle for the Russian market, had been consistently on three-month-long waiting lists, and had been exported to Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Latin America.

The initial concept of the Niva began in 1976-77, when AvtoVaz began making a crossover utility vehicle that appeared to be the first of its kind in the world; but, the dissolving of the Soviet Union in 1991 put the plans on hold. This is when GM stepped in with $100 million and a new design to incorporate the Chevrolet logo. GM gave $99 million for equipment, AvtoVaz gave property and equipment (worth $99 million), and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development gave $40 million.

A group of people involved with Sister Cities Flint traveled to Togliatti to attend the grand opening of the Chevrolet Niva plant, including GM Chairman of the Board John Smith, and other top dignitaries. At the time, this was GM’s first major investment in Russia. Subsequently, the most modern GM factory in the world is in St. Petersburg, Russia.

As part of their “Agreement on Friendship and Cooperation” – a contract – one of the main clauses explains the Sister Cities relationship: “We believe the expansion of friendship and cooperation between the residents of Flint and Togliatti in various areas of social and economic life […] According to these principals, the city authorities both in Flint and in Togliatti are taking responsibility for the development of close links and for an active exchange of tourist groups, including youth, sportsmen, doctors, teachers, journalists, artists, representatives of the municipalities, and other public and state organizations.”

The Flint-Togliatti Agreement was signed in September 1991 by Igor Antonov, a chairman for the City Soviet of the People’s; Boris Mikel, Chairman of the City Executive Committee; and Matthew S. Collier, who was Mayor of the City of Flint at the time. The documents are printed in both English and Russian.

Freeman’s and Ford’s hope for the future of the Sister Cities organization in Flint is to bring the new administration up to speed with what they are doing, so they can continue the organization’s mission of promoting peace through mutual respect, understanding and cooperation – one individual, one community at a time.

“GM Russian Car Venture is Pleasant Surprise.” Wall Street Journal. Oct. 31, 2012.
“First Chevy-Niva Rolls Out of Tolyatti.” GM-Avtovaz.ru. Sept. 24, 2002.


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