Peter Ohtaki has had a lot of explaining to do lately, but not for the usual reasons, now that the former mayor (still councilman) has returned from a five-day trip to Galway, Ireland. Total cost to Menlo Park taxpayers? Exactly nothing.
Mr. Ohtaki has shared the highlights of his itinerary with the City Council, the Chamber of Commerce, the Menlo Park Historical Association, the public at large, radio stations, and Irish as well as American newspapers. He may, in fact, have spent more time talking about his trip than he spent taking it.
During the visit, which took place during the Thanksgiving weekend, Mr. Ohtaki stopped by the original Menlough gate, mounted next to a river within Galway. It inspired the local version, erected by Dennis Oliver and his brother-in-law, D.C. McGlynn, who came to the United States from the Menlo area in Galway, Ireland, during the 1850s and erected an arched gate here with the words "Menlo Park" on it. When a railroad stop opened nearby in 1863, it was named after the words on the gate.
The trip included a visit to Menlo Castle and the unveiling of a plaque placed in Galway that commemorates the two men from Menlough who "then ventured halfway across the world when there was no transcontinental railroad, no Panama Canal" to move to California.
According to Gerry Hanley, who has made the trek in modern times from Galway to Menlo Park and back again, an elderly man who attended the plaque ceremony said, "(I've been) around a long time and I have seen all the events, and today was the best day that there has been in Menlo during my years."
Mr. Ohtaki came bearing gifts -- photos of Menlo Park's gate as well as of the Oct. 18 ceremony when he and Galway's mayor, Padraig Conneely, signed a friendship agreement between the two cities, and appeared to leave with some presents of his own, by way of inspiration.
With a population of 75,500 -- more than twice the size of Menlo Park -- Galway has developed a similar economy that emphasizes high tech, medical devices and startups.
"What I didn't quite expect was how vibrant Galway's downtown was," Mr. Ohtaki said during a presentation to the Menlo Park City Council on Dec. 3. The Irish city started revitalizing its downtown 19 years ago, in 1984, "something we can learn a little bit about." The city brought in new apartment buildings and launched a series of summer arts festivals that closed off streets much like Menlo Park's block parties. Eventually the changes led to the creation of a pedestrian-only zone within Galway's downtown district, as pubs and retail sprang up.
There's a farmers' market on weekends. "Of course, theirs has a 400-year-old cathedral behind it," Mr. Ohtaki said.
He also received gifts of a more earthy nature.
"The people there are just so friendly, kind, hospitable. … I have to say I didn't pay for a single pint of Guinness while I was there," Mr. Ohtaki noted, with much gratitude. Mayor Conneely let him use an official car while there and managed to help provide a hotel room for free, while the Menlo Park councilman paid for the airfare himself.