LIFE festival, programs may become city function

Published 9:12 pm Friday, April 13, 2018

During a work session on Tuesday, the LaGrange City Council received an update from the LaGrange International Friendship Exchange (LIFE) and discussed the possibility of changing how it is funded.

The program works with sister cities around the world and has sponsored an exchange student program for several years and a festival for two years. LaGrange’s sister cities are Craigavon in the United Kingdom, Aso in Japan and Poti in the country of Georgia.

“For those who are not familiar with what LIFE is, it is a sister city organization,” said Jeff Lukken, a LIFE organizer. “It is an international organization that LaGrange, about 25 years ago, got involved with.”

For budget purposes, the City of LaGrange has typically considered funding requests from LIFE like it would outside organizations like the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper or First Tee, but that could change with the budget for the 2018-2019 fiscal year, which will begin in June.

“The sister city effort and the international effort is really more a program of the city,” Mayor Jim Thornton said. “The City of LaGrange years ago — before me, actually before Jeff [Lukken’s term as mayor] I think — entered into sister city agreements with these sister cities.  All of that discussion has taken place here at the city council, so my thought it is that is more of a professional exchange program and ought to be a function of the city, not something that we outsource to a volunteer organization or that we outsource to the chamber tourism bureau, etc. If we want to maintain these international programs and this international sister city relationship, we are the party to those agreements. We ought to be controlling that funding.”

This proposed change comes at a time when the city is considering slowly reducing funding to outside organizations to encourage them to become self-sustaining. LIFE will likely require additional city funding this year, since it has been funded by a combination of the city, the LaGrange-Troup County Chamber of Commerce and donors since it was created. This year the chamber’s tourism budget has shifted to focus on items more likely to encourage visitors over the cultural program.

“For all the years that LIFE has existed, we got $5,000 from the tourism budget of the [LaGrange-Troup County] Chamber [of Commerce],” Lukken said. “[Former City Manager] Tom Hall was big on using that tourism budget to fund certain things that impacted the citywide. The city has twice given us $7,500 for the last two years for the new festival, so we use the $5,000 from the chamber plus the $7,500 plus another $8-9,000 that we got when we went out to knock on doors and got sponsors.”

The program focuses on international relationships, and with the newly announced Georgia International Business Park running through the city, the importance of those relationships is expected to continue to grow.

“We think that we are on the verge of being recognized as a truly international city, and I think this international festival was proof of it,” said Roy Nichols, a LIFE board member. “We would like to continue making it an annual event.”

Last year, the LIFE festival featured 25 tents with representatives from 25 countries and saw more than 3,000 visitors. That was up from the roughly 2,000 visitors that attended the festival during its first year.