Mike Catsi, Susan Cosner, and Mike Healy pose in front of the Vyazemsky City Hall.

Skagway reps visit Russia Far East city

Vyazemsky mayor due here March 5

By JEFF BRADY
Skagway’s Michael Catsi and Michael Healy recently kicked off the city’s partnership with the City of Vyazemsky with a visit to the state of Khabarovski in the Russian Far East.
Catsi, a city council member and executive director of the Skagway Development Corp. made the week-long trip in January with Healy, a local restaurant owner and SDC board member, as part of the federally funded City Links economic development program.
Funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) the Skagway-Vyazemsky partnership is one of four CityLinks Partnerships in an Alaska-Russia Far East program, managed by the International City/County Management Association (ICMA).
The Skagway men are helping assist Vyazemsky official with the creation of a business plan for a vegetable processing plant and to develop brand marketing and tourism marketing programs for the Russian district.
Catsi said they spent the first two days meeting with state officials in the coastal city of Vladivostok, and then took the Trans-Siberian Railway about 450 east miles to Vyazemsky, a largely agricultural city of 15,000 along the Chinese border, where they toured facilities and had meetings over the next five days.
Catsi said Russian cities are developing local governments after years of tight federal and state controls before and after the fall of the Soviet Union.
“It has now opened up,” he said. “They are selling off land and asking questions about how to do things like ‘Where does the money comes from’ and ‘how to tax?’”
The town had a pickle processing plant during Soviet rule, but it was torn down. The area is known for its ecologically clean vegetables, and now the community is trying to build a new facility, and the Skagway officials are helping them with a site and business plan for a plant that will be 80 percent organic.

RAILROAD TOWN – Catsi poses with Russian officials in front of an American-made steam engine that was used on the Trans-Siberia Railroad. Photos courtesy of SDC

A bigger challenge is tourism marketing for the district. The Vyazemsky symbol shows a lake full of lotus flowers. However the lake is located in a restricted border zone. During the two weeks that the flowers are in bloom, no one can get access to them. Catsi said getting access to that area, even with permitted buses, just during that period would be a key toward marketing the region. Other options are a ski area, and better marketing of cross-border traffic with the Chinese. It is on a major highway.
The area already has the world-famous railroad, and a huge regional maintenance shop. When Catsi told Mayor Victor Shashtum about the WP&YR, the mayor, a former railroader, lit up. They toured the Russian railroad yard, and the Skagway rail shops are on the list of stops when the mayor visits here March 5-9.
Catsi said business customs are different in Russia. Although everyone dresses in suits for meetings, they take frequent “tea breaks,” in which cognac and vodka are offered. They also like to treat their guests to a Russian bana, or sauna bath.
“The Russian culture is very welcoming,” he said. “They treated us like royalty.”
Such customs may be hard to top in Skagway in the winter, but the local officials are planning a nice welcome dinner for the mayor, his translator, and Susan Cosner of the ICMA. Meetings will be more casual, Catsi said.