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Metro ink - 4.26.06

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TREK IN EFFECT

If you've ever watched CBS' addictive reality show The Amazing Race and thought, "Hey, I could do that," High Trek Adventure might be for you. You've got your teams of two, your clues leading you from place to place, etc. But in this case you'll be in a race around Rochester instead of the world.

Hey, we've all go to start somewhere.

High Trek founder Jason Hofsess describes the event as "an urban adventure" that combines both brains and brawn. Teams can use only their feet or public transportation as they travel around town, deciphering clues to find their next destination. And unlike the Race, these are actual clues that test a person's knowledge of history, pop culture, and local geography. An example from a pilot event held in Phoenix: "Who shot J.R. Ewing on CBS's Dallas and who shot Monty Burns on Fox's The Simpsons?" (The answer: Kristen Shepherd and Maggie Simpson. If you answered correctly, move on to Nick Tahou's....)

So far, two High Trek Adventures have taken place, pilot programs in Phoenix and Tucson. The third, the first full-scale race, is scheduled for May 20 in Boston, and after that the event will move to New York City, San Francisco, Washington, D.C. --- and Rochester.

Our little burg got the nod because Hofsess grew up in the FlowerCity. "I like Rochester; it gets a bad rap sometimes," he says. "I wanted to bring something fun to a place where I grew up."

For the Rochester race Hofsess hopes to get between 100 and 150 teams into the mix. He says the typical High Trek adventurer is between 28 and 31, pretty evenly split between male and female. "These are intelligent people who are seekers of things," he says. "They're health-conscious but not 'Iron Men.' They probably don't participate in 5K or 10K marathons on a regular basis. They're people in halfway decent shape who want to have fun." It also helps to have a decent knowledge of area landmarks and some pop-culture knowledge, he adds. And hopefully they like to travel: the winning team gets two airline tickets to anywhere in the continental United States.

High Trek Adventure comes to Rochester Saturday, June 10. Registration costs $100 per team prior to May 15, $150 after. Info: hightrekadventure.com/rochester-race-2006.php.

--- Eric Rezsnyak


COMIDA: CHANGES IN STORE?

For a long time, members of the liberal activist group Metro Justice have been complaining about the way the County of Monroe Industrial Development Agency operates.

Now they've put some figures behind their claims. On Friday, the group released a report titled "COMIDA Isn't Spanish for Free Lunch." With the help of the Fiscal Policy Institute, a statewide think tank focused on public finance issues, Metro Justice crunched data from COMIDA's reports to the State Comptroller's office. What the organization found tends to support what the activist group has been saying all along: tax abatements frequently don't result in new jobs or as many new jobs as the beneficiaries projected.

At a press conference announcing the report, the Fiscal Policy Institute's Trudy Renwick said that of the companies that reported their data, "63 percent did not meet their job targets." Fifty-four companies, she said, had even lost jobs. Those companies, meanwhile, pocketed a total of $4.6 million in tax benefits, said Renwick.

Ray Tierney, a member of the Brighton Town Board who also participated in the press conference, calculates that the $19.7 million in tax abatements given in his town amount to the total taxes generated by 142 average homes.

Still, he and the others participating in the press conference said they want to reform COMIDA, not do away with it.

"This is not about knocking something down," he said. "It's about picking it up and making it accountable."

Indeed "accountability" was the buzzword of the gathering, which billed itself --- in a play on the IDA acronym --- as the "Initiative for Development Accountability."

Metro Justice and its partners in this initiative, including local labor unions, voiced support for new bills in both houses of the state legislature. Locally, Senator George Maziarz is the primary sponsor of the Senate Bill, which was introduced on Friday, while Susan John is a co-sponsor of the Assembly's version.

Both bills incorporate many of the changes called for in Metro Justice's report, including requiring better reporting by companies, community impact reports before benefits are granted, a clawback provision (so municipalities can get back taxes if a company fails to hold up its end of the bargain), and better transparency and accountability. Metro Justice's Jon Greenbaum calls it a "comprehensive" package and a "wish-list" for his organization's effort.

COMIDA's executive director, Terry Slaybaugh, says he understands the group's aims and adds, "Philosophically, we agree with them." But Slaybaugh is critical of the report's methodology and says it exaggerates problems.

"They tend to focus on the most negative IDA projects" including the few non-industrial projects that go on, says Slaybaugh. "Manufacturing is still the core."

He also points out that COMIDA in 2004 voted to temporarily extend the three-year job-creation deadline to five years in light of a struggling local economy "which would've affected all the data from the state."

Slaybaugh didn't take issue with most of the report's recommendations, saying that the state legislature "has had IDAs under the microscope" for a while and that "we're in the process of changing" the way things are done anyway. Some changes, like clawbacks, are already in place, he says.

But one proposed change does concern him: a requirement that COMIDA projects pay prevailing wages.

Recent firms like Coopervision and Barilla, which used IDA assistance, were heavily courted by municipalities in other states, he says. The added cost of paying prevailing wages might have tipped the scales sending the entire project else, he says.

"Those projects may not be built in a prevailing wage environment," he says.

You can check out the report online at Metro Justice's website: www.metrojustice.org/COMIDA%20report.htm.

--- Krestia DeGeorge


EXPANDING THE DEBATE

If the phrase "migrant laborer" makes you think of undocumented Latino immigrants, so should references to day laborers, slaughterhouse workers, nannies, and maids.

"There's been a shift from the typical farmworker immigrant," says Rochester City Council President Lois Giess. "You've seen the landscape workers for a long time in California, and the nannies and the domestic help were often undocumented workers. But then you saw the shift into the construction trade. And now you're seeing this shift into permanent jobs, whether it's in the hospitality industry or whether it's in the slaughterhouses."

The crux of the matter, says Giess, is whether the country is ready to create a universal immigration policy for its approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants. "Should there be a path to legalization?" asks Giess. "Should there be a guest worker program? Should there be a tamping down on enforcement? I don't even know if we have a real grasp of what the issues are in every community."

"You can't just look at New YorkState and come up with a policy that makes sense elsewhere," says Giess.

An Upstate New York city councilmember might seem an unlikely spokesperson for the immigration debate. But Giess, who is a member of the National League of Cities and its offshoot Immigration Task Force, says national immigration policies can have far-reaching implications on local municipalities. Of particular concern are some proposals that would require local and state authorities to enforce national immigration laws.

"Rochester's police force is chronically under-staffed," Giess wrote in a letter to Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chuck Schumer last month. "Community policing is difficult enough without adding the burden of immigration enforcement." Giess also worries that undocumented workers who witness crimes will be less likely to come forward if they know that police must ask about their status in the United States.

Giess, who volunteered as a nurse at a migrant health center in the 1960's, says she became aware of the nuances surrounding the immigration debate only recently. A meeting of the Immigration Task Force in Washington, DC, last month, she says, "was a real eye opener." For example, if lawmakers opt for rigorous enforcement and deportation, what happens to the American-born children of undocumented workers? And, she asks, as reports of gang violence against undocumented communities increase, how do authorities find "a humanitarian way for these people to come forward and report what's happening to them?"

Giess says she has come to believe that lawmakers must give undocumented workers a pathway to legalization. And, she says, states accustomed to immigrant waves can serve as role models for states experiencing the influx for the first time. New York, for example, has established both formal and informal support networks for newcomers. We are, she speculates, perhaps better equipped to handle immigrants' needs in areas such as health care and education than other states.

It is interesting, she adds, that President Bush --- in marked opposition to staunch conservatives in both the House and Senate --- supports the Senate compromise, which would not criminalize undocumented immigrants. "I thought, well, that's because he comes from Texas and his brother is the governor of Florida," says Giess. "They have a better understanding of the immigrants coming through."

--- Sujata Gupta

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