News & Opinion » Urban Journal

Downtown rising?


Do I say this every year?

The Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival gives us a nine-day glimpse of what we could be.

It's not just the massive crowds in front of the outdoor stages for the free performances, or headline acts that sell out in minutes. It's the hour-plus lines to get into Kilbourn and Max and other venues for jazz by groups many of us have never heard of.

It's the crowds spilling out the door at Bernunzio's and the people gathered to watch musicians playing down in Victoire's outdoor dining area. It's the full houses applauding the Nordic jazz groups at the Lutheran Church. And the buskers on the street.

And it's the loud cheers every night when John Nugent walks out onto a stage.

Nugent, a transplanted Canadian, has become a genuine Rochester celebrity. And he deserves to be, as does his Jazz Fest partner, Marc Iacona. When they launched the festival, they had more faith in this community than a lot of people have had.

As the Jazz Festival was filling the streets downtown, business and property owners were studying a proposal for a Business Improvement District, patterned after those in such cities as Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Boston. The BID would ramp up the "clean and safe" kinds of things that are essential to downtown's health – sweeping, beautifying, patrolling – as well as events that boost its vitality.

On their own, those efforts won't create what downtown really needs – more businesses opening, more people moving there – but they'll make downtown more attractive and put more people on the street. And they'll create a sense of a public center for the Greater Rochester area: a gathering place for the larger community.

And now developer Larry Glazer of Buckingham Properties seems to be buying up half of downtown. Glazer, like the Jazz Festival's John Nugent and Mark Iacona, has faith in downtown Rochester and its future, and he thinks he can make money investing there.

Glazer isn't the only one. Morgan Management, Mark IV, Gary Stern, John Billone, and others continue to invest in downtown and nearby neighborhoods.

Rochester needs so much. We have the third highest poverty rate of large US cities, bested only by Detroit and Cleveland. We need jobs for city residents. New development downtown offers hope of jobs, but frankly, their numbers would be limited. The job training needs for many city adults are enormous, and far too few Rochester students get out of school well-educated enough to get a job of any kind.

Still, the faith of developers and the Jazz Festival's producers, the efforts of the Rochester Downtown Development Corporation leaders who are behind the BID proposal: all of them give me hope.

But success isn't guaranteed. As everybody has said a million times, the population of this region is basically flat. And while Glazer and others are investing downtown, development continues in the suburbs.

At a recent RDDC meeting on the BID project, a representative from Cincinnati mentioned that seven Fortune 500 companies have offices in his city's downtown.

I could weep.

In Detroit, Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert has not only bought 50 downtown buildings but has also been pressing other regional business leaders to relocate there. He knows that if downtown Detroit doesn't survive, neither will the rest of the city – and neither will the Detroit region. In Rochester, the growing investment downtown means we're on the right path. Now if we could just convince developers of suburban projects to stop competing with the city. But that's blasphemy – as is regional land-use planning.

So we have survival of the fittest: a good business concept, in theory. In this flat-population region, though, all of these developers are taking a big risk. The pull of the suburbs is strong, and downtown developers like Larry Glazer may be the first to fail.

But the suburban developments won't be far behind. Here, as in Detroit, if downtown fails, so will the region. And we'll all suffer.