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Cultural exchange Chinese mayors enjoy tour of Lititz
By: RICHARD REITZ Record Express Correspondent, Staff Writer
Chen HaoLi felt enlightened by his Main Street experience in Lititz Tuesday morning.
HaoLi was one of 17 mayors from the Guizhou Province of China who visited the borough this week as part of the Chinese Mayor Training Program, an initiative sponsored by the American Planning Association (APA) in Washington, D.C. He is deputy mayor of Anshun, a southwestern Chinese city with a population over 765,000.
Even a persistent rain throughout the day didn’t dampen his enthusiasm as he soaked in some innovative information about American towns and effective planning strategies.
"I like the quiet, peaceful atmosphere of your town," HaoLi said through an interpreter, during a relaxing stop at Cafe Chocolate, 38 E. Main St. Others in the group shared his sentiment and said they were impressed by the less prominent presence of police security in the downtown area, compared to what they were used to seeing in Chinese towns and cities.
HaoLi and his fellow mayors enjoyed some tea and treats provided by Cafe Chocolate owner Selena Man, giving them a firsthand taste of "Main Street revitalization."
That was the key topic they covered earlier that morning during a presentation at Lititz Borough Council chambers by Julie Fitzpatrick, assistant director of Pennsylvania Downtown Center.
Even though his city’s population is roughly 765 times larger than Lititz and has a vastly different cultural heritage, HaoLi still found many similarities between the two places. He said he will be taking many creative ideas for downtown revitalization back to his hometown.
Lititz and Anshun each value history as part of its culture, although Anshun is considerably older as a 600-year-old city with roots that stretch back to 200 B.C. Both places also hold great appeal to tourists. HaoLi said the Huangguoshu Waterfall, the tallest waterfall in China located south of Anshun, attracts many visitors to his region. He described it as the "Niagara Falls of China."
"I really liked the greenery and landscaping Lititz has along the street," HaoLi said. It’s not the kind of thing you’d find with any frequency in downtown Anshun. Not yet, anyway.
Fitzpatrick described how the Main Street program has been reshaping downtown areas in Pennsylvania since it started in 1980.
She said one vacant storefront in a downtown area can cost as much as $250,000 per year in sales revenue. Unfortunately for many downtown business districts, modern shopping behaviors have made that effort difficult.
"Today, people are spending more of their time buying online," Fitzpatrick said. "Nine-to-five shopping has become obsolete. Businesses need to adapt to these changes."
The Main Street approach, she told the mayors through an interpreter, follows a formula that takes into account the character and the needs of the community. It encourages private investment over public.
As a result, the Main Street initiative has been successful in generating about $27 in revenue for every $1 in public money invested. That was a figure that impressed HaoLi.
But turning these creative ideas into reality is no easy task in a country where regulation and following standard practices are commonplace.
"In China, planning takes place from the top on down," said Andy Fang of American Planning Association, who led the tour group. "As a result, every place tends to look the same. Here in America, the small towns have a unique, creative look and feel. But creative is harder."
That makes innovation and design more difficult, but not impossible. Fang said that something needs to be done to save their rural regions, as more people are leaving the smaller towns and cities to live in China’s larger cities. The mayors on this trip are looking for ways to reverse that trend.
One essential element for a successful Main Street program is volunteerism. "That is the pinnacle," Fitzpatrick said, explaining that people are needed to do a lot of the activity involved in revitalizing a community.
"It also brings people together who otherwise might not interact with one another, and it develops new leadership to sustain the revitalization effort for years to come," she said.
Karen Weibel, Lititz Borough Council president, said community involvement has been one of the key reasons the Main Street program has been successful in Lititz.
"Our residents are involved with the planning of the town," she said. Government only sets the standards through ordinances and land use plans that respects the history of the community while preserving the opportunities for the economy to stay strong.
"We are trying to create an experience in Lititz," added Kelly Withum, executive director of Venture Lititz and one of the coordinators of the visit. "We have found that the way the town looks, as well as the variety of shops, are what attract people to visit and buy."
One of the objectives of Venture Lititz is to recruit prospective business owners who fulfill that goal; an effort that includes marketing the community in regions extending out to New Jersey, Washington and Baltimore, Withum said.
The Chinese mayors began their journey in New York City and Washington, D.C. before arriving in Lancaster County on Monday to tour smaller towns like Lititz and Ephrata. They are also interested in observing the way Lancaster County integrates itself with the Amish community.
"In China, there are many similar groups that choose to follow old customs similar to the Amish," Fang said. "Some people think they should just adopt modern ways. But maybe there are effective ways to integrate the two rather than try to force change."
HaoLi said he is proud of his city’s environmental quality, but remains dissatisfied with the infrastructure outside the city, where it can be extremely difficult for rural farmers to travel.
But when asked about his overall feeling about his hometown, he smiled and gave a distinctly American "thumbs up" sign. More MAYORS, page A17