By Donald Rodrigue
For Hometown News
STUART -- The city of Stuart officially confirmed its ties to the Bahamas by becoming sister city to the Bahamian city of Hope Town.
Stuart Mayor Troy McDonald visited the Bahamian city on Elbow Key the weekend of July 26, where he and his Hope Town counterpart signed the agreement forever uniting the two cities. Bahamians have emigrated to Stuart and Martin County for decades, most of them coming to work in the orange groves or to help build Henry Flagler's railroad. Many decided to remain afterward, infusing the region with bits and pieces of their tropical island culture.
Mayor McDonald said the primary goal of the pact is to promote economic opportunities between the two towns.
"Some of my goals for the sister-city relationship are to foster an environment that promotes cultural understanding, cultivate a climate that identifies potential economic partnerships and discuss ways to further strengthen tourism ties," he said.
The two communities have already decided to begin distributing each other's travel brochures, and soon Stuart residents will be able to find Hope Town information in area welcome centers.
"By far, the biggest economic factor is going to be tourism," Mr. McDonald said. "That's where the lion's share of Hope Town's economy comes from, and it's a large share of our economy as well."
Jeremy Sweeting, chief counselor, or mayor, of Hope Town, had his own Treasure Coast connection in the past when his sister-in-law lived in Fort Pierce for a time. He attributes Stuart's Bahamian immigration to geographical proximity.
"Bahamians began migrating to the area in search of employment, as in those times the Bahamas did not enjoy high employment levels as we do today," Mr. Sweeting said. "West Palm Beach and Stuart are almost directly west of Abaco, Grand Bahama and the Bahama Banks, so it made Stuart and the Martin County area a natural choice."
Ricardo Treco, Bahamas Consul General to Miami, also traveled to Hope Town to sign the sister-city agreement. Mr. Treco says the idea for the sister-city relationship was birthed during his visit to Stuart for the city's centennial celebration last May.
"The city of Stuart was an obvious choice for the city of Hope Town, primarily because of the geographical location of both cities," he said. "The cities also share other similarities like, tourism, fishing and boatbuilding."
While in Hope Town, which lies just east of Marsh Harbour on Great Abaco, Mayor McDonald admired the town's charming architecture and visited a boatbuilding facility.
"One of the things that I want to do is focus on how the marine businesses in both cities can learn how to better work together," he said.
Mr. McDonald also experienced the town's Martin County connection first-hand.
"I probably met 12 or 13 people from Stuart, two of whom I already knew," he said.
The sister-city agreement signed by all three officials designates both cities as official gateways to the other nation.
"We are listed as a gateway to the Bahamas from the states, and Hope Town is listed as a gateway to the United States from the Bahamas," Mayor McDonald said.
Mr. Treco says he's also aware of the significant Bahamian connection to the Port Salerno community of Martin County. Port Salerno hosts the annual Bahamian Connection Festival every October, during which non-Bahamians can get a taste of Bahamas cuisine and enjoy music by the archipelago's famed Junkanoo musicians.
"I intend to return and host a meet-and-greet for the Bahamian Diaspora in that specific area," he said.
In order to continue fostering the new sisterhood and develop business partnerships, the mayor has planned a business roundtable in Stuart for Aug. 30 and invited business owners from both cities to participate. Mr. Sweeting says he never could get enough of the Treasure Coast while visiting in the past and is anxiously awaiting the business summit.
"I am looking forward to my upcoming visit with great anticipation of carrying this sister-city relationship further," he said.