Oh, for heaven's sake. I expect big-business leaders to stand together, but this buzz about Wegmans is getting a bit much.
Wegmans has wanted to build a couple of big new stores, on the county fairgrounds property on Calkins Road in Henrietta and on Elmwood Avenue on the former RochesterPsychiatricCenter campus. And it plans to expand its East Avenue store in the city. All three have run into community opposition, the Henrietta and Elmwood proposals because of their location, the East Avenue plan because of its design.
The Henrietta Town Board rejected Wegmans' Calkins Road plan. Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson has said he would fight a Wegmans on the Elmwood Avenue property, and East Avenue area residents have been meeting with Wegmans officials hoping to get them to modify the design for that store.
In a July interview, Wegmans CEO Robert Wegman complained to the Democrat and Chronicle that while other areas of the country are welcoming his superstores, Rochester is becoming a pain in the rear. Maybe, he suggested, Wegmans will just put its efforts elsewhere in the future.
That apparently set off a lot of alarms. Earlier this month, the Democrat and Chronicle said area "civic, government, and business leaders" are afraid that Wegmans might pick up its business and leave the area.
"The last thing we want to do," Rochester Business Alliance CEO Tom Mooney told the D&C, "is chase Bob Wegman out of town."
Tension between businesses and residents is nothing new, of course. And in urban areas, the tension can be particularly acute. Businesses have been leaving many cities, not flocking to them, and it's hard to resist a business that wants to expand. But there's often little buffer between commercial and residential areas in cities, and residents are afraid that eroding that buffer will increase noise and traffic in their neighborhood --- and affect property values.
I've got to admit, I find the Henrietta objections a little hard to understand. Although there are houses on the north side of Calkins, there are also abundant commercial buildings in the immediate area, including a smaller, older Wegmans. On Elmwood, though, a new Wegmans superstore would inject a large commercial presence where there is none now.
On East Avenue; Wegmans already operates a crowded, popular, moderate-sized store, and that strip of East Avenue is heavily commercial. But Wegmans wants to greatly expand that store, in the process tearing down several interesting, small storefront buildings. Taking their place would be a large store whose most public face would be a long, nearly windowless wall. It would turn what is now a very pedestrian-friendly sidewalk --- at the entry to one of the region's most beautiful residential avenues --- into a boring block resembling a suburban strip mall.
Zoning codes and community planning are designed to bring balance in this kind of tension. That requires compromise, to be sure. But compromise has to consist of more than minor tweaking. East Avenue area residents have valid concerns about a long, formidable wall. And inserting a few showcase "windows" doesn't answer their concern at all.
(Many of us who shop at the East Avenue Wegmans don't even want a bigger store; we like the one we've got, crowded aisles, zooey parking lot, and all. We're reconciled to the likelihood of losing that urban atmosphere, but we shouldn't have to accept a dramatic, negative change in streetscape.)
Erecting a Wegmans superstore on a huge, underutilized lot on a major arterial like Elmwood Avenue sounds like a good deal. But if that lot is in a quiet residential area, with no other commercial uses nearby, that's another matter entirely.
Nobody's trying to chase Wegmans out of town. I'm as proud of the hometown grocer as anybody. But Wegmans has drawn a firm line, on which it will not compromise: its new stores have to be huge. That in itself requires lots of a specific size. To then say that the lot must be at a specific location, and with a specific design, give or take a tweak or two, isn't compromising very much.
At that point, responsible government officials must listen to the people who'll be affected by new commercial development --- and who'll be affected by future development, once a precedent is set.
Wegmans is doing well opening new stores in growing markets. Locally, though, its potential may have peaked. And that's not because residents won't roll over and play dead when they don't like a development plan. It's because Greater Rochester is not growing.
The "civic, government, and business leaders" who are concerned about Wegmans' future here would serve us all better by finding ways to grow the economy and the population of this area. (And I don't mean by bringing in a casino.)
Last week Rochester lost a unique visionary --- and a uniquely caring man --- with the death of Bill Stolze, one of the founders of RF Communications.
Many Rochesterians are familiar with Bill's business success. But many, many others, including the publishers of this newspaper, have known him as an enthusiastic, intensely committed mentor to small-business owners. He wasn't content to help launch a highly successful business on his own; he learned from that experience, was confident in his knowledge and his superb talent, and was almost boyishly eager to share it all.
He was passionate about the importance of small businesses, of entrepreneurs, and he seemed to take particular interest in helping women business owners. Evaluating and training employees, overcoming obstacles, planning growth, getting through sleepless nights: Bill had done it all, and he relished showing others the way. He taught university classes, led seminars, and reached out to new entrepreneurs, spreading knowledge and encouragement and hope.
This newspaper was profoundly affected and inspired by Bill Stolze, a man who never let his disagreement with our editorial positions stand in the way of his belief in and support of independent journalism and a multiplicity of journalistic voices.
We join the family he adored, and the many recipients of his expertise, in mourning his death.