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Whose Renaissance?

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After nearly 10 years of costly studies and deliberations, the Performing Arts Center project is no longer a city-county venture. Since it's now being discussed as part of the whole Renaissance Square concept, the PAC falls under the oversight of the Renaissance Square Corp., a subsidiary of the Rochester-Genesee Regional Transit Authority. RGRTA Director Mark Aesch is also executive director of Renaissance Square Corp.

            Renaissance Square is the largest and most significant development project downtown has seen in years. But city officials seem to be taking a backseat in the planning at this stage. Mayor Bill Johnson remains supportive of the project, but says there are many questions yet to be answered.

            Johnson discussed the project with City Newspaper in a recent interview.

City: Over the last decade, $350,000 in public money has been spent on Performing Arts Center planning. Since the project has changed so drastically, has all that money gone to waste?

            Johnson: You'd have to ask the county executive that. I made a point to her that there's already been a lot of detail work on this project. There's a scale model. It was designed for one site. I even said to Mark Aesch, rather than reinvent the wheel, at least you and Maggie [County Executive Maggie Brooks], who haven't even seen this work, should take the time to look at it so you don't go out and spend money we've already spent, because that work can be recycled and they should consider that. Clearly the people who are going to have to respond are Maggie and Aesch, because the money is flowing through them.

            City:So what's the city's role in the project? Is the county in charge?

            Johnson: The context of this is that the project will be using money that has already been earmarked for county projects --- the MCC and transit center components of the plan. That money could be used to leverage additional government funding and private money for the Arts Center.

            My point to Maggie and Aesch is that these are questions you're raising that are on the minds of a lot of people in the community. And these questions have to answered and developed out in the public eye. I keep getting an affirmation of that when I meet with Maggie and Aesch. But in the meantime there seems to be more emphasis placed on marketing this thing. You know, we're dealing with the sizzle.

            We've got to hear the details. There's no design work. There is speculation that this process is going to go as far as the Granite Building, that they'll take it down to St. Paul Street. But there's no confirmation of that. That the Farash buildings are either going to be demolished or renovated: there's no confirmation of that.

            Here we are four or five months after this concept first emerged. The public needs more to sink its teeth into than it currently has. My role has been to push to get those kinds of details out in the open.

            City: What do Maggie and Aesch say when you tell them that?

            Johnson: I get "Oh yeah, absolutely." The key is to get it done. We need to create a very open public process, [hold] design charettes as a way to engage people. There has to be a lot of public discussion.

            There has always been a significant body of opposition to the transit center. And that's not going away. With the Arts Center, everybody has embraced it, but there are still differences, as you can tell with the material coming out of the Arts & Cultural Council. There's still no consensus among various groups that would be using this.

            You go through the process of discussion. You negotiate and create consensus. The PAC could add 50 percent to the cost of the [Renaissance Square] project. And I don't care what anybody says --- it's not all coming from the public sector. There's going to have to be some significant private money put into it. We have to go through a process now that would enable us to develop a base of support that would allow us to pour money into this project.

            The second issue that no one wants to talk about is: Once you build it, how are you gonna operate it? If we've learned anything from the War Memorial, the Convention Center, and Frontier Field, those are questions that are not going to go away. And they're going to haunt you because that means the public continues to subsidize these things long after they think they're done with them.

Aesch and Brooks will lead a panel discussion on the Renaissance Square project on Wednesday, May 12, in the HSBC Auditorium, 100 Chestnut Street, at 6 p.m. Open to the public. Info: www.ripn.info. $5

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