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'Diplomacy at its best'

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Posted: Sunday, October 14, 2007 12:00 pm | Updated: 4:54 pm, Wed Aug 15, 2012.

By Don Bolding

Killeen Daily Herald

A delegation of 11 Russian construction professionals – some on their second or third trip to Central Texas to exchange business and technical ideas – are spending about two weeks immersed in as much of the culture as their hosts can show them.

At the regular Friday morning breakfast meeting of the Killeen-Heights Rotary Club, sponsoring the trip for the San Francisco-based Center for Citizen Initiatives, the foreign guests spoke through interpreter Slava Stepashkin of the CCI about their positions in their home country and their appreciation for their host families. Only one can speak halting English.

Harker Heights Mayor Ed Mullen was in charge of placing them in local homes to enhance their American experience. Overall coordinator of the project is Connie Kuehl, executive director of the Killeen Civic and Conference Center. Club president Ann Farris thanked Kuehl for eight months of preparatory work.

The journey is part of CCI's Productivity Enhancement Program, begun in 1996 and modeled after the Marshall Plan that helped Germany rebuild after World War II. It aims to help Russian and American entrepreneurs communicate to help the Russians build a self-sustaining market economy.

CCI itself was launched 25 years ago during the Cold War with Americans traveling to the then-Soviet Union to learn about life there.

Later, the State Department funded 51 percent of the PEP program, with Russian delegates funding 13 percent and American volunteers and service clubs filling in the balance. Today, fees from Russian companies and help from American volunteer organizations finance the entire program.

The Russians visiting the Killeen area hail from St. Petersburg in the east to Vladivostok, far to the west and south, and from the north to southern prairies they said resembled Texas ranchland.

Many introduced themselves as owners or co-owners of several businesses in construction, transportation, air conditioning and heating. One said a major project now is disassembling chemical weapons plants. Some are building and renovating single-family homes.

"This is diplomacy at its best," Stepashkin said. "You've shared your homes with people from 70 provinces in Russia in 45 states in this country."

The Russians, who have been touring a wide variety of businesses, said the most important lessons they are extracting are about strategic long-term planning. Several said through their interpreter that the concept is new and badly needed in Russian enterprise. They also said they are learning a great deal about business-government cooperation in environmental protection. They said other practices are very similar.

"We notice that building here is booming," Stepashkin quoted them as saying.

On a tour Thursday of the construction site of the senior center at Lions Park hosted by Andy Bass of R.K. Bass Electric Co., the questions were nonstop. The visitors took hundreds of close-up pictures of technical work and wanted to know how the power was generated and transported.

Job foreman Thomas VanderWerffAppel enthusiastically gave nonstep answers and drew rapt attention when he described safety precautions, including the powers and limits of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Three visitors said they had been on two previous trips to Central Texas, in 1998 and 2003, and couldn't learn enough.

Kuehl said the visitors' hosts were delighting in showing them as much of Central Texas as possible, including the museums at Fort Hood. Two of the visitors are from Volgograd, which in the Soviet era was Stalingrad, site of one of the pivotal battles on the eastern front in World War II.

They wanted to see a big city, so they were scheduled to visit Austin, where state Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, planned to lead them on a tour of the Capitol and other state landmarks.

CCI has eight "Russian partner" offices, its Web site says, managing 90 satellite networks to reach as many locations in Russia as possible. The practices allow industry-specific recruitment of sophisticated visitors who can spread information across wide geographic areas on their return.

More than 5,100 delegates on more than 490 trips have learned about construction, finance and insurance, food processing, health and social services, media and information services, wholesaling and retailing, education and other fields.

Host organizations have included 521 Rotary clubs, 73 Kiwanis clubs and 87 others.

Also at Friday morning's meeting, Shawn Trainum was given the Paul Harris award for securing $71,000 in donations for the Rotary Foundation.

Contact Don Bolding at dbolding@kdhnews.com or call (254) 501-7557

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