More than just sprintcars link Warrnambool to Knoxville

Knoxville's Ken Locke Stadium, named after a football player who died after sustaining injuries in a game on the field decades ago.

Knoxville's Ken Locke Stadium, named after a football player who died after sustaining injuries in a game on the field decades ago.

SPRINTCARS may have brought Warrnambool and Knoxville together but the two rural cities share more in common than first thought.

The potential sister cities are predominantly agricultural.

Despite being located only 40 minutes’ drive out of the Iowa state capital Des Moines, Knoxville is surrounded by fields of corn, farmhouses and pick-up trucks.

The city itself is smaller than Warrnambool with a population spilling over the 7000 mark, a few thousand people less than Australia’s Hamilton or Portland.

It was settled around the 1850s, around the same time as British colonists established Warrnambool, a period of settlement far later than the American seaboard.

Knoxville was named after General Henry Knox, a military figure from the American War of Independence.

Coal mining and railway development helped to build Knoxville but now the city has a diversified employment base.

Its road names are distinctively American: Jefferson, Washington and Madison streets are the city’s main shopping strips, while suburban avenues such as Woodland and Cindy Drive sound like something out of Hollywood.

However, economic globalisation has ensured Knoxville has plenty of retailers that Warrnambool is very familiar with. Just as you drive off the Interstate, fast food outlets such as Kentucky Fried Chicken and Subway dominate the city’s southern entrance.

Like Warrnambool, the Iowan city is also sports mad. Apart from sprintcars, the Ken Locke Stadium is the centre of community spirit. 

The stadium was built in the 1930s Roosevelt era to combat mass unemployment and is home to the Panthers gridiron club. 

A wooden mascot is located close to the stadium and has become somewhat of a landmark in its own right.

Knoxville Journal Express editor Steve Woodhouse said many residents were excited about the prospect of a sister city, especially one with a shared agricultural base.

“There’s a buzz around town — it’s pretty neat that we might have an Australian sister city,” Mr Woodhouse told The Standard.

“We’ve had some comments on our website, through social media. People (from Knoxville) who have visited Australia say they really enjoy Warrnambool.

“There’s also lots of Australians and New Zealand people that come to visit during the Knoxville Nationals.”

Knoxville’s sprintcars circuit.

Knoxville’s sprintcars circuit.

Warrnambool mayor Michael Neoh said the connection would initially be based on sports-based tourism but added that sister city relationships develop over time.

“There’s already that connection there when it comes to sprintcar racing, so this formalises the connection,” Cr Neoh said. 

“It’s been an untapped opportunity. There’s a difference in population but there’s similarities in that Knoxville is also a regional city with an agricultural sector.”

With Warrnambool experiencing a turbulent period in its municipal history, the new connection with Knoxville was something all seven councillors could agree on this month.

Warrnambool City Council chief executive Bruce Anson said the international link highlighted the importance of the Sprintcar Classic.

He said the connection had been built over more than a decade through Premier Speedway management.

“Sometimes we forget what a big event it is on an international level,” Mr Anson said. 

“Sprintcars are big business in Knoxville and people in that sport hold Warrnambool, and Premier Speedway in particular, in high regard.”

Apart from sprintcars, the agricultural connection is a factor Mr Woodhouse and other Knoxville residents believe binds the American city and Warrnambool.

“Farming is a major part of the local economy, along with manufacturing,” Mr Woodhouse said.

“Corn, soybeans and hog production. All those areas employ a lot of people. It’s interesting that Warrnambool is also a farming community and that’s something that’s been mentioned by some people.”

Knoxville councillors are yet to formally discuss the sister city connection, but are likely to endorse the concept, given it was the first to make the move.

A memorandum of understanding will then be exchanged between Warrnambool and Knoxville and the two regional centres, separated by thousands of kilometres of land and ocean, will then be able to call each other sister cities.

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