Why would the City of Rochester want to buy MidtownPlaza?
For several reasons, maybe. But chief among them is fear. Fear that the wrong developer might buy it.
City Council was to vote last night on approving an option to buy the massive complex. According to the terms of the deal, $250,000 gets the city the option to buy the complex for $6 million. The city would have that option through February.
The suggestion that the city own a property that was once the glory of downtown has created a buzz --- good and bad. Some people are already comparing the idea to the purchase of the ferry. But the city's plan isn't to be a long-term owner. Instead, officials say they want to shepherd the property to an owner whose plans will be compatible with the city's. Between now and February, officials will be able to scrutinize Midtown, determine whether it makes sense to go through with the purchase, and look for a buyer.
Midtown has always been a concern, City Attorney Tom Richards told City Newspaper earlier this week. But when the current owners informed city officials recently that they would be selling the property, that "pushed it to the forefront of our agenda in a way we wouldn't have chosen otherwise," Richards said.
The city hasn't lined up a developer to buy the property, but "we're working on it," said Richards. "We've been working on it for some time." And there has been interest among developers, he said.
Ideally, city officials want to find a developer before the option expires in February, he said, "so the city can effectively plan for the risk" of taking on the property.
The possibility of the wrong developers getting their hands on Midtown scares anyone working on improving the city's downtown.
"This is a huge property in terms of its size and scale," says Heidi Zimmer-Meyer, president of the Rochester Downtown Development Corporation. "Whatever happens to that property will affect everything around it."
One of the bigger fears is that a real-estate investment company with a "buy and hold" strategy could buy Midtown. Such investors buy a property, wait for nearby growth and investment to drive up its value up, and then sell.
"The risk of that happening is very real," says Zimmer-Meyer, since there is "a whole slew of players" with that strategy.
Midtown encompasses enough of downtown that such a strategy seems like a catch-22: it's tough to envision much serious growth happening in its vicinity without Midtown being a part of it.
That might be apparent to locals, says Zimmer-Meyer, but not necessarily to an out-of-town investor.
"If you've got 100 properties in your portfolio, you may not stop to think that through," she says.
In addition to blocking potentially bad owners, city ownership could have some important benefits. First, it would be easier for the city to get money for lead paint and asbestos remediation --- federal or state funds, for example --- than for a private developer. And lead paint and asbestos are big concerns at Midtown.
City ownership also "allows more flexibility on resale," says Zimmer-Meyer. Perhaps the biggest way is that the city can declare Midtown an urban renewal zone, which under state law means it could sell the property --- whole or in part --- at below-market rates.
Those kinds of benefits could be exactly the boost Midtown needs to become attractive to local developers again.
--- Krestia DeGeorge
JAZZ FEST, BABY
It's a ways off, and we have yet to wade through all the holidays, but the bigwigs that run the Rochester International Jazz Fest have announced next spring's dates: June 8-16.
Club Passes go on sale November 17 at 10 a.m. for $99 and can be purchased at www.ticketmaster.com or at any Ticketmaster/Ticket Express Outlet. After April 5 the price goes up to $119. (Last year Club Passes sold out.)
And RIJF promoter John Nugent has put his money where his mouth is (when his sax isn't in it). Currently living in Toronto, Nugent has bought a house in Brighton and will move here this spring.
Nugent says working in Rochester rather than constantly commuting around LakeOntario will help him improve the ever-growing festival now in its sixth year. But how'll he top last year's line-up?
"Just watch, dude", he said on Monday. "I've got some really, really cool stuff."
--- Frank De Blase
MAKING THE TECH LEAP
Two years ago, the Rochester school district had more than 380 computer software programs. All of them were old, and none could communicate with other programs.
"Try managing information on 6,000 employees and 35,000 students using that approach," says Ford Greene, the district's chief of information management and technology. After spending 25 years with IBM and starting his own company --- something he grew from five to 120 employees --- Greene thought he was ready to retire. But then Superintendent Manuel Rivera asked him to assess the district's management information systems.
It has cost millions, but the district has upgraded an antiquated, disjointed, and paper-intensive system at every level --- from student instruction to financial management.
"There was a time when I was getting all of these different financial reports, and none of the data matched up," says Rivera. "It was so frustrating when you consider the responsibility involved."
Until this fall, Greene says, teachers in all of the district's 60 schools spent the first 15 minutes of class taking attendance manually. Then they left their classrooms to hand-deliver the completed forms to the principal's office.
On the first day of school this year, all 3,500 teachers took attendance on a computer system called Chancery. It gives a real-time picture of attendance and immediately signals administrators about truancy patterns.
"Instead of spending time in instruction, where you would want teachers to be, these poor folks couldn't tell if a student was out for the day or on suspension," says Greene.
Another program similar to one used at the University of Rochester, People Soft, pulls financial management and human resources under one system.
"We have 5,000 substitute teachers," says Greene. The new system contacts subs and examines issues like sick pay and patterns in employee absences --- for instance, a teacher who's always out on Mondays.
Chancery alone cost about $600,000, but most of the expense is being reimbursed, about 88 cents of every dollar, by the federal government. There are ongoing costs, however, such as licensing fees and 24-hour tech support. One annual Microsoft contract, which the board is considering, will cost $70,000. Greene has been offering board members a weekly technology breakfast --- sort of a high-tech boot camp to help them understand the new technology, its benefits, and the costs they are asked to approve.
Freeing more time for classroom instruction has been his main goal, he says. "After we all used Chancery, I got over a hundred e-mails from teachers thanking me," says Greene. "And you know, the interesting thing was that they were mostly from the older, often less technology-proficient teachers who have been in the classroom for 15 years. They were buried in paperwork. This is empowering."
But the person who impressed him most during this transition was the mother of a student who went up to Greene and his wife in a restaurant. Greene had found a program through Dell Computers that gives students last year's models free. The Rochester district has given the computers to at-risk students who took a program learning how to install software, and the woman's son was one of those students.
"The main difference between our students and kids in the suburbs is that our kids usually only have access to computers in school," says Greene. "This mother, a waitress, came up to me and says, my husband left me with an angry 13-year-old boy who was failing. The confidence he has gained by learning about computers gave me a different son."
--- Tim Louis Macaluso
BATISTE ON POST-RUMSFELD
Outgoing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has had many critics, but few have been as harsh as retired Major General John Batiste.
"It was a step in the right direction," Batiste said early this week, referring to Rumsfeld's resignation. "But we now need to seize the moment and dramatically change what's happening on the ground."
Anti-war activists won't find much comfort in Batiste's recommendations. He has publicly agonized over how the war was executed, but not over the war itself. He insists that victory is still possible and non-negotiable. Neither Republicans nor Democrats have been honest with the public about the threat from radical Islamists, he says. And leaving Iraq in shambles would make a bad situation worse.
"Americans really don't understand what's at stake here," he said in an interview on Monday. "Our leaders failed to mobilize this country. We need the kind of leadership and personal sacrifice that Americans have not seen since World War II."
His prescription for the future:
• Federalize Iraq into threeregions, since the current parliamentary-style government is ineffective;
• Bring in an additional 100,000 troops from NATO and from countries within the region that have a stake in seeing a stable Iraq, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan;
• Secure the borders with Iran and Syria;
• Reduce Iraq's massive unemployment, particularly among young, fighting-age men.
With US troops stretched thin, Batiste said, it should be clear to Americans that the US military is under-funded, under-resourced, and too small. And given the way the war has been conducted, he said, he's not even sure that R&D has kept pace.
--- Tim Louis Macaluso
GRADES FOR PLAY
Don't look for immediate changes to the Rochester school district's policy barring failing students from extracurricular activities. A group of parents have been pushing for a revision, arguing that students may be more inclined to drop out if they can't take part in sports, but they've met some resistance from Superintendent Manuel Rivera.
School Board member Tom Brennan has drafted a new policy letting students who fail a class continue to play sports under certain conditions. The policy would require the district to provide additional academic help for the students.
But at a School Board committee meeting last week, a concerned Superintendent Rivera said he wouldn't sanction letting a student with an F in a core subject --- English or math, for instance --- take part in extracurricular activities. And he said that the district already provides much of the help Brennan's policy would require. Any student with an F has to attend special classes in order to participate in extracurricular activities. Providing additional individualized tutoring would have a significant impact on the district's budget, he said. And some of Brennan's proposals would change teachers' responsibilities, which would need union approval, Rivera said.
Brennan still says he wants the policy to be less punitive. He plans to revise his proposal and present it to the board in December.
--- Tim Louis Macaluso