Gilbert Sister Cities has given itself a shot in the arm with a reshuffle of its board and a new plan to better market itself and pursue its goal of more aggressive economic development in the future.

The nonprofit volunteer organization was set up in 1995 to pursue cultural and economic ties with Antrim and Newtownabbey, Northern Ireland, and in 2002 added Leshan, China to the program.

In 2015, Newtownabbey was merged with a neighboring community called Antrim, and the name of the community was changed.

Recently, a new partnership agreement was signed between Antrim and Newtownabbey and Gilbert’s corresponding entity to update the name in the local agreement. Simultaneously, the short- and long-term goals of the partnership, which put more emphasis on economic development, was also updated.

Gilbert’s current board comprises Suzanne Lunt, president; Rich Vandermolen, vice president; Greg Tilque, secretary; Jim Gentrup, treasurer and 11 directors. Gilbert Town Council member Brigette Peterson is honorary chair.

“We’re really interested in trying to expand the understanding of the Sister Cities program and get a little more support,” said Joan Krueger, one of the directors.

Vandermolen, who is to oversee economic development after Tilque relinquished the role, said that the organization plans to “put a greater emphasis on developing economic ties.

“Up until recently, we spent more effort doing the student exchange, which is a critical component, because the youth of today are gong to be the leaders of tomorrow. Exposing them to other cultures at this stage in life is, in my opinion, huge,” he said. “Being a business person in the community, I see enormous amount of opportunity for us to take our existing city alliances and look for opportunities to share with each other economically, not just in tourism.”

Vandermolen, who has an international corporate background and sold a part ownership of a payroll company recently, is helping his wife, Felicia, manage the Arizona territory of a Sub Zero Ice Cream franchise.

“Already, through our relationship with Sister Cities, our colleagues in Leshan and Antrim and Newtownabbey are interested in having a store there as well,” Vandermolen said.

The couple found that the populations living in these countries’ outlying areas don’t have access to easy refrigeration.

“Our ice cream isn’t made until you order it, which is something the people were very interested in. Our friends in Northern Island, we’ve been in talks with them about getting a store open there,” he said.

Leshan, China has a large semiconductor manufacturing facility, for which the research and development is being done in Phoenix. Rigid Light, a company in Gilbert, ships its light equipment to the United Kingdom. And two years ago, when the local Sister City officials were in Leshan, they initiated a relationship between a hospital system there and Dignity Health, to exchange best practices.

“We’ve discovered there are a lot of companies based in the East Valley that could benefit from engaging with us on our Sister City communities,” Vandermolen said.

However, it is an exchange.

More recently, after the agreement was signed, Antrim and Newtownabbey sent two of their department directors to Gilbert to do a best practices assessment. The Irish city also paid to send Linda Edwards, Gilbert’s Planning Manager, to Antri and Newtownabbey for a week to work with its staff on some of the planning tools she uses, which are useful as the city continues to grow, Tilque said.

Vandermolen likens economic development to building a franchise.

“You’ve got to show people what you’re doing and show them how it works. And it slowly builds momentum until it picks up some steam and then it moves right along,” he said.

Vandermolen also sits on the board of Phoenix-based Arizona Sister Cities, as well as Gilbert Leadership, Gilbert Public Policies Committee and Army Aviation Heritage Foundation. Felicia sits on the Dignity Health Foundation.

“By being part of organization and boards, you foster relationships and find opportunities to expand,” he said.

Sitting on the board of Arizona Sister Cities, which has access to the state’s economic development groups, is also helpful to eliminate duplicating efforts, the businessman said.

“They’ve already got databases of companies that are doing business; we’ll reach out to them and see how and what they’re doing. It’s a best practices approach. If we can find out what others are doing, we can help share that knowledge to somebody who may not be as familiar with it and open up those opportunities and doors,” Vandermolen said.