Main Street in Asia: Familiar Concepts, Unfamiliar Settings

Two of the most important principles of our revitalization strategy – that volunteers lead the program and that the program is funded by significant local contributions – were always seen as uniquely American. But two recent trips to Asia by National Trust Main Street Center (NTMSC) staff members, one to Taiwan in November 2009 by Norma Ramírez de Miess and one to Japan by Doug Loescher and myself in March 2010 revealed that we have much more in common than we realized.

Japan Public Spaces
Main Street volunteers in Japan do everything from planting pansies to creating festivals.

Unlike many past trips, these visits involved significant tours of communities already using the Main Street Four-Point Approach®. Several towns in Japan are using the Main Street Approach. We visited two: Odawara and Fukaya. Odawara boasts four Main Street programs, all of which are volunteer-driven, including volunteer executive directors. One citywide coordinator is a full-time paid staff member.  In Fukaya, local leaders recently established a Main Street program to counter an urban renewal-type plan for the historic downtown district.  A local banker is leading the effort and has been joined by several other volunteers. 

The National Trust Main Street Center was invited to Japan 10 years ago by the Urban Renewal Coordinators Association (URCA), a national profit organization, to explain how the Main Street Four-Point Approach worked. Former NTMSC staffer Stephanie Redman accepted URCA's invitation and planted seeds which have borne great fruit.  Although the URCA is still learning how to apply the Main Street Approach, participants at a seminar to explore its use during the past decade demonstrated strong interest, support, and understanding about our downtown revitalization strategy.

Norma was invited to Taiwan by the Corporate Synergy Division, also a national nonprofit organization, and we hope that Taiwan will enjoy similar success in applying the Main Street Four-Point Approach.  She has continued to discuss additional trips with them and they continue to learn from her expertise.

It was with great surprise that we found so many common issues and redevelopment practices. While there are important cultural differences, there are significant learning opportunities as well. 

The character of small enterprises that occupy storefronts in smaller cities in Japan and the U.S. can be strikingly similar.  For example, the small family hardware store is an endangered species in both countries, but it looks like they played similar roles in both nations: selling cooking pots along with tools. The hand-hoist in an abandoned hardware store in Fukaya City is almost exactly like the hand-hoist in a hardware store in Ronceverte, West Virginia.  Luckily, the store in Ronceverte is still open.

The issue of volunteerism also seems to be a clearly shared value.  We met leaders from five Main Street programs and everyone involved in these efforts was a volunteer, including the staff.  Volunteers were doing everything from planting pansies to creating great festivals.  We also met the leaders of historic preservation organizations - again all volunteers. Clearly, the volunteer ethic, while different, creates the framework for sustainable commercial district management in both countries.

Japan Fund Raising
As they do in American communities, donors contribute funds to restore buildings and support other Main Street activities. These markers recognize people who've contributed funds to the program in Fukaya, Japan.

In terms of philanthropy, we again were pleased to find that this exists in Japanese programs as well.  For example, we found several markers recognizing people who donated money to support a local cinema, restore a traditional building for use as the chamber of commerce, and rebuild historic temples. In the current economic climate, fund raising is exceedingly difficult everywhere. If you were to gather a group of U.S. Main Street leaders at a conference, they would complain about how hard it is to recruit volunteers and raise money, and you might think that the people complaining are unsuccessful. If you were to meet with the same leaders in their hometowns, however, you would see that they are doing both activities and have concrete results to show for it. Because we had time to interact with local leaders in their communities instead of a conference setting, we got past the initial concerns about how hard it is to raise money and recruit volunteers.  We saw that these activities are happening in Japan – just as they are in the United States.

Japan Building After
While there are many similarities, there are also key differences in Japanese cities and practices. Most Japanese storeowners also own their buildings, while in the United States, many storeowners rent their retail space.

At the same time, we noted some key differences in Japanese cities and practices. Most Japanese storeowners also own their buildings, while in the U.S. it is less common. Many American store owners rent their retail space. We see this as a key asset for Japanese business districts because business owners have a clear vested interested in improving their properties. 

Another key difference may be in the organizational models used to conduct revitalization projects and manage districts over the long term. In the United States, nonprofit organizations (NPOs) have a long tradition of running Main Street programs. The national government in Japan only recently enacted laws creating NPOs and their numbers are growing quickly. While a relatively untested idea in Japan, it appears that there is clearly a role within community development for these programs. 

We invite comments from others who have worked abroad and also from revitalization specialists in other nations that are exploring the Main Street Four-Point Approach®. Cary Tyson, Director of Main Street Arkansas, will be leaving this year's National Main Streets Conference for a trip to Italy with Rotary International and he is sure to return with interesting information. This is a productive conversation that we hope will continue.