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News briefs 5.7.03

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Location, location

Monroe Community College's Advanced Technology Center is revered by public officials and development types alike as a project with the potential to revitalize downtown. But the project is in limbo after the state Legislature declined to allocate the necessary $33 million to get the project started.

            The Technology Center --- a downtown campus that would offer instruction to between 2,500 and 3,500 students --- is a $66 million project whose funding would be split evenly by the county and the state.

            Given the state of the economy, the legislature's decision is "no surprise to anyone," says Rochester Downtown Development Corporation President Heidi Zimmer-Meyer. "As soon as the state gets back up on its feet financially and the economy improves, then we ought to go hard at it as a community to help support what MCC plans on doing."

            But even if the economy improves, going "hard at it as a community" might be more difficult than it sounds. While MCC has not formally announced a location for the Technology Center, some public officials are concerned that the center could lead to more problems for the troubled Sibley Centre.

            The Sibley Centre, formerly the Sibley's department store, has MCC's Damon Center as its core tenant. The building's owners, Rochwil Associates, owe the city just under $11 million in delinquent loan balances, late fees, taxes, and PILOTs (payments in lieu of taxes).

            If MCC locates its Technology Center anywhere other than Sibley Centre (one possible location is the corner of West Main Street and Plymouth Avenue), it will pull Damon from Sibley and relocate it to the Technology Center campus. Some public officials fear the impact that will have on the prominent building, and the city's ability to collect the debt accrued by its owners.

            MCC maintains that a site has yet to be selected for the Technology Center.

            "We're not leaning towards anything," says Cynthia Cooper, MCC's director of public affairs. "I know the county has some interest in sites they'd like us to look at. But until we get the funding, we've decided we're not going to pick any location. There are just too many variables yet. We're committed to downtown, but that's about as far as we're ready to go on that one."

            Still, Cooper says that the high-end infrastructure demands of the Technology Center couldn't be met by any existing downtown building. "We'd really have to build from the ground up," she says. In other words, it's looking more and more unlikely that MCC's Advanced Technology Center, if it ever happens, will be happening in the Sibley Centre.

            Asked about this possibility, Rochester Deputy Mayor Jeff Carlson called the entire Technology Center process to this point "stupid politics."

            "We have a distressed building on the East End that we're trying to piece together. Don't make it more distressed," Carlson says. "This really defies reason --- maybe not from [MCC's] point of view, but from a city development point of view."

            Carlson acknowledges that MCC isn't in the business of downtown development, but says: "That's the problem. Why can't we get along?" Why, Carlson asks, doesn't MCC "even entertain a proposal to do the whole thing at the Sibley Center?"

            "I like [MCC President] Tom Flynn. He's a good guy." But, Carlson charges, Doyle controls the MCC budget, and the college has to do what Doyle says.

--- Chad Oliveiri




DMV duplicity

It's been a windy, perilous political road for County Clerk (and Republican county exec candidate) Maggie Brooks since the state announced it was closing the downtown Department of Motor Vehicles office last February, making Rochester the only major city in New York without an office to handle routine transactions.

            In a February 21 news release addressing the closure, Brooks acknowledged that "any change can be challenging," but called the state's decision "a sensible consolidation of service that removes a duplicative expense." Furthermore, she said losing the office was "actually good news for taxpayers and the County Auto License Bureau." This last contention was based on the fact the county stood to collect about $286,000 in fees collected at county-run branches (the county gets no cut from transactions at state-run DMV offices).

            After city residents vociferously complained about the inconvenience of having to use one of the county's suburban DMV offices, Brooks unveiled a plan to provide DMV services in the city by sending a mobile unit to set up shop in various urban locations. As City pointed out in a March 5 article ("Good news unravels fast"), expenses associated with establishing the mobile unit (such as buying a van and equipment) and fortifying staffing at suburban locations would actually cost the county $51,000 this year, even factoring in the additional fee revenue, according to Brooks' estimates at the time.

            Nevertheless, by the time the state closed its office in the Sibley Building on April 1, the "duplicative" expense was making the rounds downtown.

            Meanwhile, Democratic State Assemblyman David Gantt was making his own rounds in Albany in an effort to secure state funding for the reestablishment of a permanent downtown DMV office. On April 29, state legislators approved $1.5 million to reopen a downtown DMV in Rochester.

            Governor George Pataki has yet to sign the transportation appropriations bill that contains the funding. But according to Deputy County Clerk Larry Staub, Brooks is lobbying him to do so.

            "Maggie'd be very pleased if it reopened, because she considered it to be a valuable asset," Staub says.

            How the downtown DMV went from being "a duplicative expense" to "a valuable asset" in Brooks' mind is a good question. However, the candidate-clerk did not return calls seeking comment; Staub said he was calling on her behalf.

            Also according to Staub, establishing the mobile DMV unit hasn't turned out to be as expensive as initial estimates predicted. He says the clerk's office has been able to use a van previously used by another county department that no longer needs the vehicle. Instead of spending $25,000 on new wheels, the office spent $10,000 to take over the remaining payments on the van.

            In addition, Staub says the state "very graciously donated" the equipment needed for the new mobile office, saving the county roughly $40,000. The remaining expenses are all related to increased staffing.

            The status of the mobile unit (which Staub says is becoming increasingly popular) is still in limbo, pending the governor's action and the logistics of reopening an office downtown. "If it does reopen, and at this point, I think that's a big 'if,' we'll have to see what happens," Staub says. "If they do reopen, maybe we'd have to take a look at it then."

            Or maybe not? How much duplicity can one city stand? Stay tuned.

--- Chris Busby




Alliance takes more turns

It looked like the Gay Alliance of the Genesee Valley was going to deal with its organizational troubles in a fairly open way --- though still "in house." (See "Path of the Rainbow," part 1, City Newspaper, April 16-22, about the copious fallout from the group's hiring of a new executive director and firing of a longtime staffer.) The group's leadership had scheduled a membership meeting for April 27, where, it was assumed, many angry words would be exchanged. But the leadership cancelled the meeting on short notice, for fear the "discourse" would get out of hand.

            Since then, the Alliance has decided to pump up the PR side. At least that's the impression given by two recent job ads the group posted on its website: one for a Director of Community Relations, the other for a Communications Manager. And according to a GAGV news release, the group has accepted the resignation of Patti Hayes, who served as Youth Coordinator since 1999. The release promises the Youth Coordinator position will be filled "prior to Hayes' departure on June 30." Hayes is leaving to concentrate on graduate studies at Syracuse University.

            Also, local attorney Denine Carr, of the Lacy Katzen firm, recently sent cease-and-desist letters to some dissidents on behalf of the GAGV. She told the dissidents that certain statements they'd posted on the Alliance for Accountability's Yahoo! group were libelous and had to be removed, or else. Carr told us she couldn't comment further "because the GAGV is contemplating litigation." She referred us to GAGV Executive Director Chuck Bowen, who didn't return calls for comment.




Heart of Sacredness

On May 1, the Catholic Diocese of Rochester and the Sacred Heart Preservation Committee --- locked in spiritual and worldly combat over plans to renovate and modernize Sacred Heart Cathedral on Flower City Park --- met in court. According to local news reports, State Supreme Court Justice Robert Lunn overturned a city Planning Commission decision that had denied the cathedral landmark status. Now the matter has to go back before the Commission.

            Diocesan spokesperson Michael Tedesco says the Diocese will push onward to get its plans okayed. The plans call for exterior maintenance, interior reconstruction (including controversial options for moving the main altar), a handicapped-accessible entrance, and increased parking (requiring demolition of 11 homes nearby).

            Yes, parking, the bane of traditional cityscapes. Tedesco says the cathedral serves 350,000 Catholics in 11 counties and must have space to accommodate large groups at special events. He says the Diocese has support from the mayor and neighborhood groups. But some activists continue to raise questions about the demolitions. They also question the propriety of spending $6 to $8 million on such a project when the Diocese could be spending more to fight poverty. (See "Sacred Architecture," City Newspaper, March 12.)

            Tedesco says the Diocese is already doing ample anti-poverty work, though. But what about those 11 houses? "The Tenth Ward," he says, "has an adequate supply of housing for people at [a low] income level." He also says there have been problems --- vacancies and unpaid rent --- with the units, some of which the Diocese owns.

            There's another bottom line: Tedesco says officials have discussed "moving [the cathedral functions] elsewhere in the Diocese," perhaps to a more central location, if the plans for Flower City Park don't pan out. Is that the equivalent of a big corporation's threat to abandon a community if it doesn't get its way? No, says Tedesco. "It shouldn't be construed as a threat at all." (Preservation Committee representatives and their attorney, Alan Knauf, couldn't be reached for comment before deadline.)




Badu tops MusicFest

With the standard lethargic fanfare of most press conferences, the talent for the ninth annual Rochester MusicFest was announced Tuesday morning. We were also introduced to two yet-to-be-named MusicFest mascots (they're big and blue and may scare the hell out of the little ones). The fest has obviously established itself nationally, as proven by the quality of entertainment on this year's bill. And though the Mayor stresses its diversity, MusicFest is clearly an urban music-oriented event.

            MusicFest will run for nine days from July 12 to July 20 at various city locations including Brown Square Park, where it all began. All events will be free except for the Fest's two-day finale in Genesee Valley Park, where parking will be free this year.

            One of a precious few contemporary vocalists worthy of being dubbed "diva," Erykah Badu will headline the final Saturday night in Genesee Valley Park. Soul sensations TheWhispers will star Sunday night, July 20. Other weekend acts include returning artist Musiq Soulchild, reggae superstars Third World, and contemporary r&b act Dru Hill.

            The free events include a Latin night with Tony Vega & Orchestra on Saturday, July 12, and The Gospel Celebration on Sunday, July 13, at Brown Square Park. Other highlights include Garth Fagan Dance, The RPO, and a Kids Night. More major acts will be announced shortly.

            If purchased before July 1, single-day tickets are $23.50, and two-day passes are $36. After July 1, the prices go up to $28.25 for single-day and $46 for a two-day passes. Children 6 to 12 are $10.50, children under six are admitted free. Tickets are available at Ticket Express and Ticketmaster, 232-1900 or www.ticketmaster.com.

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