"The Book of Mormon" is headed back to Rochester, complete with the fresh-faced, dizzily optimistic Elder Price singing "I Believe." And that song has been running through my mind the last several days, competing with less happy thoughts.
Rochester has been through a tough time this month, losing, in the space of 48 hours, a dedicated young police officer and two important entrepreneurs, one of them the driving force behind much of the development taking place downtown.
Larry Glazer had been investing so much, had initiated so much, and so much was hanging on his ability to pull everything off. In a region celebrating the arrival or expansion of a major employer or two, bringing lots of new residents, Glazer's individual projects would not have been so crucial. But that's not the case. Glazer, like Dan Gilbert in Detroit, was acting in part on a belief that a fledgling back-to-the-city movement would continue, and that his developments would attract tenants.
I don't mean that Glazer was naive. He was not. He was a very smart business owner and developer. He didn't invest without understanding the risks. But Rochester has unique challenges, sprawl and the region's anemic population growth among them.
For the most part, downtown's growth will come from elsewhere in the region, from people moving in from the suburbs or from other city neighborhoods. We're getting new jobs, certainly, a bit at a time. But nobody's bringing in large companies that will attract thousands of employees to live here.
So, to the optimism of Elder Price in "The Book of Mormon": In spite of all the challenges, we've got a lot going for us. An impressive number of people Believe – and are putting their time, effort, and money into growing Rochester.
They include developers and individual business owners who, like Glazer's Buckingham Properties, have been successfully investing in Rochester for years. The East End is a dynamic bar and restaurant center. The west end and Cascade District are full of apartments and offices that weren't there 20 years ago. New downtown businesses like Hart's Grocery have joined older ones like Abundance Co-op and Arena's. A fantastic new event space sits on top of 1 East Avenue, all of Rochester spread out at its feet. One Eleven East Avenue, a sad old hotel-turned-apartments, is being renovated.
The offerings at arts institutions – which distinguish this community in a way few other segments of our economy can – are exploding.
And right now, we're in the midst of Rochester's newest big multi-day festival, Fringe. I love Fringe for its eclectic offerings – serious drama, slapstick comedy, exquisite dance.... But I also love it for the people who are throwing themselves into it, and for what that represents.
The instigator was a Rochester import, University of Rochester President Joel Seligman. Its producer is Erica Fee, a mid-30's returned Rochester-area native. Its board chair is decades her senior, attorney Justin Vigdor. And the stars are the numerous artists – many of them Rochesterians – and local arts organizations staging the programs, some 380 acts over 10 days.
Fringe shows off not only superb imported talent but also a wealth and variety of local talent. Saturday's performers, for instance, included Mounafanyi, a Rochester group that includes dancers and drummers originally from Guinea, the Congo, and the Caribbean, and the remarkable PUSH Physical Theatre.
This is Rochester now, and it's Rochester's future. We're a different community than we were 50, 25, 15 years ago, and that is very, very good. There is talent, energy, and new ideas that didn't exist years ago, quality-of-life enhancers and economic building blocks.
Fringe, Larry Glazer's projects, and all the other investments suggest that Belief is pretty strong in Rochester right now. Despite the obstacles, we oughta be able to build success out of that, don't you think? ("Mormon" will be at the Aud October 7-19. Go and sing along.)