It's pretty early on a Thursday night --- just 10:30 p.m. --- but East Avenue at Alexander Street is already jumping. People are everywhere: The Old Toad, BarFly, Whiskey, Coyote Joe's. By midnight, elbowroom at the hottest spots and any hope of decent parking are long gone.
Cross over to the other side of downtown to the High Falls entertainment district. Inside the new Keys Martini and Piano Bar, a disco ball spins tiny white lights around a room that, like McFadden's nearby, is practically empty.
People come here in droves for the piano shows that run from 7 to 11 p.m., says operations manager Elaine Henry, but "at midnight, it's like they all get on the same bus."
Just down the street from Keys is Jillian's. The parent company for the all-in-one entertainment chain recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and entered purchase agreements to sell 30 of its 33 clubs. The Rochester location, which is still open, wasn't included in the deal because, according to news reports, it's not making enough money.
Between the city and the state, nearly $20 million in public money has been spent on High Falls. We've redeveloped the terrace approaching the Pont De Rennes bridge, built the High Falls Parking Garage, embarked on costly demolitions, and converted the historic buildings at 60 Browns Race into a museum and entertainment complex.
Just last year, the city signed a five-year deal that pays the Baltimore-based Cordish Company $2.4 million to operate and serve as a consultant for the nightclubs at 60 Browns Race, now known as McFadden's and Tiki Bob's.
Cordish has a proven track record when it comes to successful downtown entertainment districts. They've done them in Baltimore, Houston, Charleston, and Louisville. But High Falls presents its own particular set of challenges.
"The city can pour money in here all they want," says Keys' Elaine Henry. "We don't have residential."
Most people who call to inquire about Keys need directions, she says, because they have no idea how to get to High Falls.
Unlike the Upper East End, High Falls doesn't benefit from nearby housing for the young and affluent demographic hitting the bars. It also offers fewer options.
There are roughly a dozen bars or bar-restaurants in the Upper East End: the Alexander Street Pub, Old Toad, Blue Room, Coyote Joe's, BarFly, Karma, Tonic, Mex, Whiskey, Jungle, Veneto, and Pearl. Your options in High Falls include McFaddens, Tiki Bob's, Triphammer Grill, Keys Martini and Piano Bar, Brü, Jillians, Jimmy Mac's.
"I just think they've got a lot going for them over there in terms of critical mass, in terms of being one after the other," says Assistant Deputy Mayor Mitch Rowe. "[Bar owners] created an energy over there, to their credit. We're not a growing community in terms of population right now, so there's a finite number of people going out. And it's incumbent on the different places around town to try and market to them. Right now --- and this is certainly not a knock on High Falls --- the Upper East End seems to be where young people want to go."
Ask people hanging out at the bars along Alexander and East why they chose that area over High Falls, and answers range from cheap drinks to the presence of other friends, to the locally owned scene.
"High Falls is too polished for me," says Chris Amoroso, 28, who's chosen to relax at the Blue Room. "This [area] is more locally owned. [High Falls] seems like a tourist trap."
Rowe's perspective on High Falls is unique. He recently bought an old three-story building at the corner of State and Lyell that he plans to rehab into an upscale coffeehouse called the Flatiron Café.
But it's his years of work as a city employee that have given Rowe a special understanding of High Falls' evolution.
He remembers coming to work for the city 20 years ago and parking on Commercial Street "because it was free, and the vast majority of buildings over there were abandoned."
He credits former Mayor Tom Ryan and former Deputy Mayor Chris Lindley for "creating the notion" of restoring the historic High Falls area.
That team, Rowe says, worked to procure the state funding that turned High Falls into an urban cultural park whose primary focus was the Center at High Falls, a museum of Rochester's industrial history.
"So the city, for better or worse, when they accepted that money more than a decade ago, had some obligations to keep that [cultural park] going," Rowe says.
And between the laser light shows and the museum, Rowe estimates the city was spending nearly $1 million a year.
When Mayor Bill Johnson and Deputy Mayor Jeff Carlson took office, Rowe says, "they were looking at the subsidy the city was putting in basically to have an urban cultural park, and they wanted to think of ways to turn that around and move the city out from underneath these operating subsidies."
By the end of the city's five-year deal with Cordish, "there will no longer be any operating subsidies at High Falls."
That, along with the fact that companies like Entercom and Roberts Communications are now located in High Falls is, to Rowe, a sign of success.
Involving Cordish in High Falls wasn't the plan initially, Rowe says.
The city first asked the company to consider vying for the rights to develop the Charlotte waterfront. But Cordish eventually decided that it was much more interested in High Falls.
"When you have a national developer who's done big-time stuff in the harbor at Baltimore and he wants to come to your town, the natural instinct is just to say 'come on down,'" Rowe says.
When it comes to turning High Falls into a vital entertainment destination, Rochester is giving Cordish some unique hurdles.
For one, because of the state funding, it has to keep the museum open. "I think Cordish might think there's a better use for that space," Rowe says.
It also has to adapt to the added scrutiny that comes with having the city as your landlord.
"I think Cordish has found things to be a little different in Rochester than some other places they've been," Rowe says. "There were a couple of incidents with over-under nights --- apparently some fights and under-age drinking. And the city basically said, 'We don't want you to do that.' So they stopped. It was a big part of their concept. They do it everywhere else. But they had to rethink their approach here in Rochester."
Of course, some people, like 22-year-old Ryan Smith, prefer the age requirement.
"It's classier [at High Falls]," he says. "There's less underage stuff [than at Alexander Street]."
Marketplace aside, there may be some changes in store for the Upper East End and High Falls.
Some of the East-Alexander club owners have been talking about doing, among other things, a New Year's Eve celebration with a Times Square-type ball dropping, Rowe says. In High Falls, the future could involve hydrogen-powered fuel cells. Really.
A newly formed public-private partnership is trying to get federal and state money for a feasibility study to create a "hydrogen village" in High Falls that would use the power of the falls to drive fuel-cell technology, Rowe says. The fuel cells could power the city-owned buildings and provide a clean, cheap source of energy to renew the laser shows, "which cost a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year in electricity when the city was doing them," Rowe says.
"A lot of times I hear people asking, 'Why put all that money in High Falls?'" says Rowe. "Well, it's all about our history. That's where our city started. So many of our historic buildings have been demolished in this town; it's really kinda sad. But I think if all goes well over the balance of the Cordish agreement, then we have succeeded in getting High Falls out from under these operating subsidies. If High Falls is turned into a hydrogen village, then we've found a way to make it more attractive, and we'll be able to do more for less money. It won't ever be about competing with East End."