One of the smallest cities in the Triangle could soon be the little sibling of a much larger city overseas.
Morrisville officials agreed last week to tentatively move forward with the process required to form a sister city relationship with Xiangtan, a city of 1.8 million people in China’s Hunan province that’s best known as the hometown of Mao Zedong.
Such relationships typically take months to form and aren’t carried out entirely by the local governments, but by a combined effort from elected, civic and community leaders.
Morrisville has yet to form any sort of private group to further the discussion. But a few days after the Chinese New Year, the Morrisville Town Council voted unanimously to begin drafting a letter of intent regarding Xiangtan (pronounced Hsiang-tan or, phonetically, she-ong tawn).
“There’s absolutely no obligation,” Mayor Mark Stohlman said before the vote. “It’s simply saying, ‘Yeah, we’re interested in finding out more about it.’”
Xiangtan’s mayor, Hu Weilin, reportedly has plans to visit Wake County in March or April. Stohlman said he wants to invite Hu to meet with local officials at that time and that he would like the town to make some progress before then.
Emails show Lian Xie, director of the Carolina China Council, has been working with Stohlman and the Morrisville Chamber of Commerce to set up the international meet-and-greet this spring.
“In the meantime, I have invited several Chinese Americans who live in Morrisville to be part of a ‘Citizen’s planning committee for Morrisville-Xiangtan Sister City’ to assist the Town of Morrisville in establishing this relationship as well as developing culture, education and business projects in the future,” Stohlman wrote.
Zhuzhou, a neighboring city of Xiangtan, is already a sister city with Durham.
The non-profit Carolina Chinese Council helped Durham with that relationship and is currently helping Sanford become a sister city with Yixing, “whereas Xiangtan is in early stage exploratory discussions with several candidate cities in North Carolina,” the Carolina Chinese Website states.
It’s unclear what other cities are in the mix.
More than a quarter of Morrisville’s residents are Asian, the highest of any city in the Triangle.
Morrisville potentially could be home to the Triangle’s first Chinatown, slated to be built just off Interstate 40 at the mostly abandoned outlet mall across from the airport. Stohlman said that plan has hit a few hiccups but still has potential.
“The original vision was a lot of shops and restaurants and cultural resources, but then that fell out favor,” he said. “Then the vision was more of a commodity market, like they have in China, but that also fell out of favor.”
Now, he said, it’s looking like maybe a mixture of the two plans could come together in the future.
But even with connections like that, and aid from the Carolina China Council, Morrisville isn’t guaranteed to become a sister city with Xinagtan or any other city.
Some council members said they wanted more information on what Morrisville would gain from such a partnership.
Council member Vicki Scroggins-Johnson said she wants more conversation about the commitment “so we understand the process as well as the potential costs.”
And while Morrisville’s population is about 27 percent Asian, 20 percent of that demographic is of Indian descent. Chinese is the next most-common ancestry among the town’s Asian residents.
“With our large Indian population, we could also look into starting an Indian sister city,” said Council member Steve Rao, who is of Indian descent.
Stohlman said that could be a good idea. He said the town needs to drum up more civic involvement to see what residents are interested in pursuing.
Doran: 919-460-2604; Twitter: @will_doran