Seongnam City, South Korea. Courtesy of Aurora Sister Cities International

AURORA | Nearly two dozen Aurora residents, including several elected officials, are in South Korea this week on an exchange visit to one of Aurora’s official International Sister Cities, Seongnam City, South Korea.

Mayor Steve Hogan, City Manager Skip Noe, Councilman Brad Pierce, and the trio’s spouses are all attending the roughly week-long trip to southeast Asia. Councilman Bob Legare, as well as nearly 20 other local leaders, including representatives from Denver International Airport, the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, the Aurora Chamber of Commerce and local tourism group Visit Aurora, are also attending the trip.

“We’re calling it a trade, tourism and education mission,” said Karlyn Shorb, CEO at Aurora Sister Cities International. “This is kind of the reciprocal mission to Korea.”

Aurora officials received nearly 30 Korean officials for a visit to Aurora last spring.

Shorb said Aurora officials this week will be meeting with officials from South Korean colleges, medical research firms and private companies to try and establish potential partnerships. She pointed, specifically, to a planned meeting with South Korean investors who have expressed interest in opening a solar panel manufacturing facility in Aurora.

Aurora Sister Cities charged officials $1,030 to cover lodging and other limited expenses for five days of the trip, according to Shorb. Officials planning to stay two additional days were charged an extra $500. Officials were responsible for covering their own airfare, which totaled around $1,500 per ticket, and were allowed to use their city-provided travel funds for the trip.

Technically a sister city since 1992, Aurora revitalized its relationship with Seongnam City, a suburb of Seoul which boasts a population of about 1 million people, when the umbrella Sister Cities program was reignited in Aurora in 2014. Apart from Seongnam, Aurora currently has official Sister City partnerships with municipalities in Ethiopia, Poland, Costa Rica and a “friendship city” in El Salvador. Officials have credited the latter relationship with successfully landing a new Salvadoran consulate in Aurora.

The Aurora Sister Cities program has not been immune to criticism, however, since the program was revitalized in the city three years ago. While the organization is technically a separate nonprofit not affiliated with the city, it receives about 70 percent of its funding from an annual city-provided grant, according to Shorb.

Various council members have railed against the group since its recent reemergence. Most recently, Councilman Charlie Richardson asked more than two dozen questions about the group and its funding at a city council study session where council members were slated to discuss signing off on another $112,000 annual grant for the group. Richardson’s questions pushed the item off the April 17 agenda.

Citing past and future events generated by Sister Cities, including an Ethiopian-centric soccer tournament, a new South Korean youth exchange and an upcoming International Sister Cities conference, Shorb has defended the program.

“Council members all have different priorities and things that they think are important in the city,” she said. “That’s their job … but I think what we do is valuable.”

The International Sister Cities conference could host between 700 and 1,000 people at the Hyatt Regency Hotel and Conference Center in August 2018, Shorb said.

“I don’t have any concerns about the program,” added LeGare. “It’s strongly supported by council and there’s a few naysayers, but I don’t know of any major policy that didn’t have someone asking questions, whether it be council member Richardson or a neighborhood activist.”

At the recent council meeting, Hogan added that the mayor of Seongnam City, Lee Jae-myung, is currently a South Korean presidential candidate. And while his odds look bleak, according to Hogan, the Sister Cities partnership could benefit the city, state and region if Jae-myung were to ascend to higher office in the future. “If he becomes the president of Korea in some future year and Aurora still has a Sister City relationship with Seongnam,” he said at a recent council meeting, “I have no doubt that it will be remembered by a new president who was the mayor when the city of Aurora came to visit.”