Historic connections knitting the West Flanders city of Kortrijk, Belgium, and South Carolina together for nearly a century will be reinforced when Kortrijk representatives visit Greenville next year.
The delegation visit scheduled for May 9–13 — and led by Kortrijk Mayor Vincent Van Quickenborne — will be the second visit between the two cities in 12 months, following Greenville’s visit to Kortrijk in June 2016.
“During June’s visit, we discovered so many similarities and shared interests between both cities, and so many opportunities for exchange and collaboration, that we immediately started working on a return visit to further develop the relationships and build on the momentum,” said Stijn Van de Velde, liaison for Kortrijk with Greenville Sister Cities International and co-chair of the visit.
That visit included Greenville Mayor Pro Tem Jil Littlejohn, representatives from the Upstate SC Alliance, Greenville Chamber of Commerce, Greenville Area Development Corporation, Greenville Technical College, Furman University and others.
The June visit rekindled a relationship that began during World War I. Then, the U.S. Army’s 30th Infantry Division, which trained at Camp Sevier near Greenville, lost more than 1,000 lives as they helped break the Hindenburg Line during the Battle of the Somme near Ypres.
The relationship accelerated during the textile industry’s heydays, when Greenville billed itself as the “Textile Capital of the World” and hosted Belgian business leaders at its international convention. Friendships strengthened through the years with garden club exchanges, photography exhibits and student exchanges between Furman University and the Catholic University of Leuven (KULAK) in Kortrijk.
Things formalized in 1990 when Kortrijk invited Greenville representatives to ceremonies marking Kortrijk’s 800th anniversary. Soon after, Greenville leaders signed a formal Sister City agreement with Kortrijk, seeing the relationship as a good foothold for American businesses before the 1993 creation of the European common market.
Since the 1990s, Kortrijk and Greenville have evolved away from textile-based economies. Greenville has attracted large manufacturers, such as BMW and Michelin, as it developed a reputation for precision engineering and advanced manufacturing.
Kortrijk, with its many family-owned businesses, developed a unique culture of creativity that inspires its flourishing manufacturing and design industries. Today, its medieval city hall anchors a modern region known for such companies as Delta Lighting, Barco, Bekaert and many others that integrate smart design into manufacturing.
In an address welcoming the Greenville delegation in June, Kortrijk Alderman Rudolf Scherpereel noted that both cities are similar in population, put “quality first, then quantity,” love sports and have strikingly similar suspension bridges over downtown rivers: the Leie in Kortrijk and the Reedy River in Greenville.
Also, one of South Carolina’s major education institutions, Clemson University, is named after Thomas Green Clemson, the former chargé d’affaires to Belgium from 1844–1851, who received the Order of Leopold medal from King Leopold I himself.
Working together, Kortrijk and Greenville leaders see opportunities to strengthen their local industries while opening markets for each other.
“We both have strong entrepreneurial cultures,” said Hank Hyatt, vice president for economic competitiveness at the Greenville Chamber, who was on the June trip to Kortrijk. “I believe that Greenville can learn from Kortrijk’s high-design approach to manufacturing and that our advanced manufacturing sector may enable them to grow their economy as well.”
The initial visit in June resulted in several proposals for educational and cultural exchanges. In November, Sarah Markewich from Howest College in Kortrijk visited with leaders from Greenville Tech, Clemson University and Furman University to explore opportunities for collaboration. This March, the West Flanders Chamber of Commerce plans to send a representative to study how business groups around Greenville market themselves. A representative from the Greenville Chamber is expected to visit Kortrijk for a similar knowledge exchange at a later date.
Now that they’ve started learning more about each other, both Greenville and Kortrijk representatives want even more tangible results from the next delegation visit.
For Greenville, that means creating a program that connects business leaders from Kortrijk with the Upstate’s best in manufacturing, research, engineering and design. The visit will also include time for informal gatherings and fun, including Artisphere.