Haven’t heard of Vermont’s Turkish Cultural Center? You clearly are not a well-connected political official.
Effusiveness went unchecked at the center’s ribbon-cutting ceremony on Wednesday. Vermont’s governor and attorney general, a handful of lawmakers and Burlington’s mayor took turns extolling the Anatolian initiative to promote “cross-cultural awareness.” An FBI Special Agent, Wayne E. Shuptrine, also attended.
The center, which started in 2011, is sharing its new space on Burlington’s College Street with two other “sister” organizations: the Peace Islands Institute — founded, as you might guess, to promote peace — and the Turkic American Chamber of Commerce, which, according to its leadership, “has been bringing investors to investigate business opportunities in Vermont” and aims to provide local Vermont businesses with "networking opportunities" in the Turkic world.
The organizations are local offshoots that fall under the umbrella organization, the Council of Turkic American Associations. According to Eyup Sener, the council’s New England regional director, Vermont is home to roughly 4,000 people of Turkic heritage. (The Turkic region, he made a point of clarifying, includes not just to Turkey but also Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan.)
On Wednesday, well more than 50 people, including men in dark suits, milled about the 5th floor offices during the lunchtime celebration. A group of men sat around an oval table in a side office, conferring with the door open, while the rest of the crowd listened to speeches. In one corner, an elderly man wearing a skullcap sat with cane resting against his knee.
The promise of jobs and investment seemed to resonate with Gov. Peter Shumlin and Mayor Miro Weinberger, who both gave plugs for world peace, but also said they were hoping for something more out of the friendship. Citing the potential to export Vermont products to Turkey, Shumlin predicted, “It will also enhance our job growth.”
Weinberger told the group, “My hope is that this center becomes a place where not only there is peace and better understanding between the cultures, but it becomes an opportunity for economic development and job creation.”
Labor Commissioner Annie Noonan and a representative from the state’s Agency of Agriculture were also in attendance.
Interviewed after the ceremony, Rep. Helen Head was more measured in her expectation of what economic benefits Vermont might reap. Citing a local Turkish restaurant and a food cart on Church Street, she said she thought the center could help in the food and cultural departments, but, she continued, “I’m not aware of what other economic benefits there would be.”
Major economic benefits have yet to materialize, but in the meantime there has been plenty of goodwill and gift-giving. Gov. Shumlin was sent away with a rug, while Attorney General Bill Sorrell, Mayor Weinberger and others were presented with red velvet boxes containing ceramic wares.
Tom Berry, a representative from Patrick Leahy’s office, was there to pass along the senator’s regards, and also to present to the center’s leaders a folded flag that had at one point flown over the Capitol.
Head was one of roughly a dozen Vermont lawmakers who two years ago spent a week in Turkey on the organization’s dime. She described it as a “whirlwind” in which they shuttled around to different historic sites and met with diplomatic officials.
Sorrell, too, traveled to Turkey courtesy of the Council of Turkic American Associations a year ago. Just two weeks ago, he returned from a second trip, this time funded by two law firms. Sorrell said he’s developed a keen interest in the country and its rule of law and acquired quite a few Turkish friends.
According to a PowerPoint presentation shown at the start of the event, one of the center’s most important events is an annual “friendship dinner” at which it doles out awards to local figures and “acts as a catalyst for lifelong friendships.” The organization also holds other cultural events, offers Turkish language classes, and carries out charity work.
When it came time to cut the ribbon, two girls wearing red costumes — ornately embroidered and bejeweled — held it taut for Vermont’s top political players. Shumlin took the lead, declaring himself an expert in the art of ribbon-cutting photo-ops, and issuing instructions to the others.
Afterward, the festivities continued over a lavish lunch spread featuring kabobs, baklava, and miniature bagels, among other dishes.