CHIEVRES, BELGIUM - USAG Benelux was recognized as having the Army's best community relations program in 2009, and ChiAfA..vres Garrison is continuing the effort to strengthen U.S.-Belgian ties through more community relations events.

The garrison hosted its first on-post Belgian Market and Mayor's Seminar April 23-24.

"The overall purpose was to deepen the partnership with the communes that are in and around ChiAfA..vres and SHAPE," said John Paugh, ChiAfA..vres Garrison manager.

Mayors from nine communes outside the gates of the decades-old base joined to hear the economic impact of ChiAfA..vres and SHAPE.

"They were very impressed, and they were very excited that we've hosted this," said Paugh. "Particularly having the opportunity to come out to ChiAfA..vres Air Base, have the tour and actually see what's out here was refreshing for them. I think that they felt that this was a very good gesture toward the future of our partnership."

Alain Carion, mayor of the commune of Beloeil, had never been to ChiAfA..vres Air Base, although he said he has driven by the base for years.

"It's very interesting for me because I don't know what's going on on base," he said. "The only thing I might see is an airplane, but I have no clue how many people work here or what you do, so it's very interesting for us to know better what this is all about.

"I really appreciate the way it was brought to us as an opportunity to partner with them," he continued.

The seminar was attended by the mayors of ChiAfA..vres, Lens, Brugelette, Ath, Silly, Beloeil, Saint-Ghislain, Jurbise and Soignies; the Belgian National Military Representative; the Belgian Military Commander of the Hainaut Province; the Belgian Facilitator of the air base; and representatives from the governor's office, SHAPE Federal Police and the SHAPE Headquarters Support Group.

"There was a lot of positive discussion particularly when we discussed the economic impact," said Paugh.

For instance, the Belgian NMR suggested local vendors hire an English-speaking employee, if possible. He said that benefit would improve overall commerce within the communities because it would encourage the international community stationed at ChiAfA..vres and SHAPE to venture out more.

It's because of that communication barrier that ChiAfA..vres hosted a Belgian Market in conjunction with the seminar. Vendors were invited on post to share their services with the military community, and translators were on hand to assist.

"What's done today is important," said Carion. "It's our way to better welcome the U.S. residents in our cities because it's all about getting to know each other. It doesn't really matter what nations, but everyone can learn from each other. It's always good to work together, know what each other is doing and work alongside."

Mark and Kathy Meidlein said they thoroughly enjoyed the market. After finishing their weekend rounds at the commissary and post exchange, the two ventured into the Community Recreation Center to see what the market had to offer.

"We live in Erbisoeul. We know a lot of the stores around there, but we never go into ChiAfA..vres. This is a great idea," said Mark, who works on ChiAfA..vres Air Base as an aircraft mechanic.

"When you look through a phone book and you try to call people, you may speak a little bit of French, but when they speak so fast, the communication is hard," his wife added. "But when you can look face-to-face with somebody - even though I don't really speak French - you can communicate better with them here face-to-face than you can over the telephone, so I think it's great."

In addition to the language barrier, sometimes international customers aren't aware of what stores have to offer because of ambiguous or foreign storefronts. Through the market, that barrier was broken as visitors learned about area services, prices and store locations.

Kathy found a new beauty institute that offers manicures, pedicures and massages at prices lower than she's seen anywhere else, and her 7-year-old son, Matthew, was intrigued by a library that rents out Belgian board games for two weeks for a euro or less.

Nearly 600 people attended the two-day event, and based on that success, Paugh said he is already discussing ways to expand it next year.

"The long term goals are that we're looking at this as an annual event both with the presentation for the mayors and also with the invitation of the different business enterprises that are here," he said. "Right now, the business enterprises that are here today represent ChiAfA..vres, Lens and Brugelette, but we're looking at expanding that and having representation from all the communes in and around SHAPE."