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It’s the economy, stupid

First priority for next mayor: show us the money


They've obviously done their homework. The three major Democratic candidates for Rochester mayor have consulted the polls, and they agree on what you seem to be telling them are the big issues: crime, education, and economic development.

Find a solution for all three, and they'll get elected. And, maybe, save the city from its slow decline.

But it really starts with the money. All the police tactics in the world won't stanch Rochester's alarming homicide rate as long as so many city neighborhoods are barely functioning amid desperate poverty. Each of Rochester's city schools could land a spot on Newsweek's top-100 list, but see if that matters to the kids whose buses drop them at the corner of Norton and North Clinton or Conkey and Avenue A, B, C, D, or E after the bell rings.

So money's one place we're starting our election coverage. We've talked to all sorts of people who have a connection --- professionally, personally, or both --- to the city's economy and its development efforts. Some were reluctant to go on the record because of affiliations with City Hall and local economic-development arms. Among those willing to be named: corporate-relocation consultant Gene DePrez; outgoing Mayor Bill Johnson; Heidi Zimmer-Meyer, president of the Rochester Downtown Development Corporation, and Kent Gardner, director of economic analysis at the Center for Governmental Research.

Their candor --- and the brutal honesty of our undisclosed sources --- helped us assemble the following list of harsh economic truths the next mayor must be ready to address. We'll have the candidates' discussion of these dilemmas in a future issue.

• Murder Inc.: "There are whole sections of the city that average business people would not feel comfortable walking around in broad daylight," says a source. "As a city resident, I understand that there's a delicate balance to strike. But we have deeply stressed sections of the city we can't ignore. You can't divorce economic development from quality of life, safety, education, and poverty."

• Pony up: The Rochester market doesn't hold much sex appeal for developers. With most developments in the city's recent history, public money had to be the first in the pot. And here's one fun fact: The only completely unsubsidized large-scale project built in Rochester during the Johnson administration is the Wal-Mart (of all things) on Hudson Avenue. "All they wanted was our cooperation," says Johnson. "That's rare."

• Uniquely ROCCity: Brownfields and crime (violent and property) are almost exclusively city problems. It's hard to assemble a development project in the city that doesn't come with a raft of environmental concerns. "For most businesses," says one of our sources, "the path of least resistance is the suburbs."

• Made for what? There've been plenty of attempts at sexy marketing campaigns to attract new business and industry to Greater Rochester. The latest slogan: "Rochester: Made for Living." But several of our sources insist that marketing Rochester's "quality of life" is a losing strategy. Says corporate-relocation expert and former Rochesterian Gene DePrez:

"I get piles of materials every day, and every community has nice golf courses and sailboats. But quality of life is elusive. People have different standards. Any city's marketing campaign has to be more business-oriented and more substantive than that. And it has to speak to your uniqueness. What kind of research and development are going on there? What are the university offerings? What's the intellectual capital? Then, maybe, you get into quality of life."

The Made for Living website (www.rochestermadeforliving.com) does mention theregion's business and educational opportunities, but all of that gets buried by pictures of happy kids eating ice cream, cats lounging on porches, and categories called "kicking back" and "living well."

• Bushwhacked: Forget about state funding to help spur economic development. New York's government is buried in its own financial mess. And the federal programs the city has turned to in the past --- Community Development Block Grants, affordable housing grants, etc. --- are under attack by the Bush administration. How have the feds helped us before? CDBG money was used downtown for the Hyatt Hotel and the Bausch & Lomb building. And $12 million in federal funds helped with the Port of Rochester development. Given those limitations to subsidizing economic development, says Mayor Johnson, "If I were coming into office today, I'd be scratching my head."

• GRE with envy: The same people who criticize "Made for Living" do say that the formation of Greater Rochester Enterprise two years ago was a crucial step forward. But it should have happened more like 15 years ago. Before GRE, the city, the county, and the Chamber of Commerce were all working independently to attract businesses, developments, and people to the area. There is still competition among the city and its suburbs, but GRE provides clients with some initial one-stop shopping. And it keeps the area unified in its E-D goals.

Other cities started similar initiatives long before Rochester, however, and we're still playing catch-up. Makes you wonder what all those cities are up to now.

• Return to Smugtown: Rochester's never bottomed out like Buffalo. Despite downsizing by our major employers, we've not been crippled yet. Maybe our ability to cope kept us from looking beyond our borders sooner for examples of progressive E-D initiatives.

"The next mayor has to see the future," says RDDC's Heidi Zimmer-Meyer. "We've been a complacent community. We've been relatively healthy for several generations. But the facts are changing. We're competing with China and Germany. The world has changed. Our own innate protections have changed. We're a town of small companies."

Says DePrez: "Rochestershould be an outstanding place."

• That sinking feeling: If we can't keep downtown's commercial property at a premium, the entire city will feel the pain. At its height, downtown produced 40 percent of the property-tax base for the entire city of Rochester. Go figure.

• Friends in higher places: MonroeCounty could screw the city if it wanted. Because it has a larger budget, favorable incentive programs (COMIDA, Empire Zones), and, mainly, better land, Monroe County holds the upper hand in any economic-development relationship it shares with the city. Rochester's next mayor has to convince suburban residents --- and their elected representatives --- that concentrated poverty and a dwindling tax base in the city hurt everyone in the county.

• First responder: The hallmark of any decent economic-development department is its ability to respond to the needs of businesses quickly and seamlessly. Several sources say the city's economic development department needs strengthening, and that it needs to change its approach to development. Says one: "The 2010 [the city's long-range plan] process is a beginning. But we have to go way beyond that."

Other sources criticize the Rochester E-D department's tendency to regulate. "It's been more about code enforcement than anything else," says one source. "If you have that regulatory mindset to economic development, it doesn't help. You have to facilitate more than you regulate. You need a department that can represent business to the rest of the bureaucracy and knock down walls. Rochester's department right now can think of lots of reasons not to do something."

• Big Yellow: Kodak's downsizing presents major problems, but also some opportunities. "Kodak demonstrates a willingness to rehab its sites," says CGR's Kent Gardner. "The city ought to work closely with them to figure out which sites have the most promise" for future development.

• Get a job: When community leaders talk about attracting new business to Rochester, they talk about businesses that require skilled workers. What about the large number of Rochesterians who have no skills and less-than-adequate education? "What you do is make them more skilled," says Kent Gardner. "It doesn't make sense to look for industries that hire unskilled workers. "They'll come in, and then they'll be gone in five years." The solution: "You start with the RochesterSchool District, BOCES, MCC," Gardner says. "Education is the best anti-poverty program we have."

"There is no solution other than addressing the job readiness of these individuals," Gardner says. "That is a huge task, and not one that is going to be easily accomplished."

• Youth of today: Attracting and retaining the under-35 demographic has perplexed Rochester and its leaders for years. Young people value ethnic diversity and authenticity. Rochester has many ethnic neighborhoods packed with ethnic retail and restaurants. The problem: Most of this stuff is in neighborhoods the average young person with disposable income would be warned to avoid; and certainly not encouraged to explore.

• Stop the bleeding: People are flowing out of the eastern US in droves. Even Midwestern populations are declining as folks head further west. "We still haven't found a way in the east to market our strengths and reverse those population trends," Johnson says.

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