PEORIA — However it's spelled, it appears a village in northern Lebanon soon will become Peoria's fourth sister city.
The ancestral home of legions of Lebanese-Peorians, Aytou — or Aitou, Aytu and Itoo, among other spellings — received the Sister City Commission's blessing earlier this week. Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis and the City Council are expected to affirm it.
A formal agreement might be signed this summer. That's when the mayor of Aytou, Ramone Alwan, is scheduled to visit Peoria.
Alwan's visit is to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Itoo Society, the legendary local Lebanese philanthropic and social association.
"I'm just ecstatic," Randy Couri, an Itoo Society historian, said following the commission's unanimous decision. "My dad was a genealogist and historian before me, and I just know he's beaming about this, let alone all the Itoo members. They were thrilled we were going to pursue this."
Couri said it took him months to prepare a presentation for the commission meeting Wednesday at City Hall. It appeared to be time well spent.
Commissioners received a 38-page booklet, viewed a PowerPoint production and feasted on baklava, a eastern-Mediterranean dessert. The PowerPoint included a video message from Alwan, who spoke in Arabic.
"This subject is very important to us, because it will help to strengthen the deep ties that already bind our two cities," Alwan said, according to a translation.
About 15 of Couri's compatriots provided moral support. Among them were state legislators Darin LaHood and Mike Unes, local Republicans who trace their family lineages to Aytou.
"I think this is a great fit and a great year to be able to formalize something that maybe should have happened a long time ago," said Unes, the 91st District state representative.
According to Couri, an Aytou sister-city arrangement was attempted about 10 years ago but didn't go anywhere. Despite the large Lebanese presence in Peoria — and their considerable business and political influence — some Itoo Society members figured that would remain the case.
Aytou has only about 350 full-time residents. Its population is miniscule compared to Peoria's current sister cities — Benxi, China; Clonmel, Ireland; and Friedrichshafen, Germany.
"I always thought, 'It's such a tiny village, no way they'll do it,'" Couri said.
But his opinion began to change last year after Sister City Commission Chairman Rex Linder addressed the Itoo Society board.
"He started talking and I thought to myself, 'Is he out of his mind? They're never going to do this,'" Couri said. "And the more I heard him talk about it, I thought, 'You know, we are perfect for that. There's no reason we shouldn't have that designation.'"
Linder acknowledged commerce isn't the primary motivation to cultivate an arrangement with Aytou. But considering as many as 6,000 in the Peoria area claim Aytou roots, this situation is unique.
Page 2 of 2 - "Part of a sister-city relationship is to improve the cultural climate of Peoria," Linder said. "And certainly, this helps enrich our cultural climate."
Visitors from Aytou to Peoria and vice versa already are common. So are Aytou youths who come to Peoria to study at Bradley University.
With a sister-city designation likely, LaHood expects those connections to increase. Even now, it certainly is more than what might have been expected when the first Aytou immigrant arrived in Peoria 128 years ago.
"To see this little village up in the mountains, in the middle of nowhere," said LaHood, the 37th District state senator, who in 1999 visited Aytou. "For our ancestors to come down that mountain, get on a boat and wind up in Peoria and do what we've done here is kind of remarkable."
Nick Vlahos can be reached at 686-3285 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @VlahosNick.