Alex White, the Green Party candidate for Rochester mayor, is fired up about Costco. But not in the way you think. Costco, a membership-only warehouse store, will be part of the CityGate development planned for the intersection of East Henrietta and Westfall roads.
Costco received property tax abatements from the county's industrial development agency worth $3.6 million for its new store. And that's what has White riled up. That money could have been used to rebuild vacant houses in the city, he says, or to educate students in the Rochester school district. And the store will be redundant, he says, because the site is close to a Tops supermarket.
"It will take business away from other places in the area," White says. "It will be almost commercial-neutral to the general area. Are we really hurt by not developing that area? Is there really a burning need to put something down there? I don't think there is."
White, who has run for mayor and City Council in recent years, owns the gaming store Boldo's Armory on Monroe Avenue, and is a director of the Good Business Association of Rochester. He lives on South Clinton Avenue in Rochester South Wedge neighborhood.
White is a longtime critic of the incentives given to developers by COMIDA and by city government. And he's made it the main thrust of his mayoral campaign this year. White will face Democrat Lovely Warren in the general election on Tuesday, November 5. Incumbent Tom Richards has the Working Families and Independence lines, but is not actively campaigning.
The argument for incentives is that few projects would get done without them, and that at least the municipality will get some tax money from the completed project. A vacant building doesn't generate any tax revenue and has a deleterious effect on the surrounding area.
But White says that private investment might step up if the city and COMIDA leveled the playing field. Smaller investors can't compete with the big guys and their multimillion-dollar incentives, he says, so they don't even try.
"And I don't buy the premise that if we don't give the money, nothing will ever happen," White says. "That's absurd."
But White's critics point to projects like the Academy building, which has undergone a beautiful renovation with assistance including a $700,000 bridge loan from the City of Rochester. The building languished for years and was visibly deteriorating until the city found a way to make the financing work for a developer. Now the building has 21 market-rate apartments.
By helping to finance housing projects, the City of Rochester is picking winners and losers, White says. The population of the region is not growing, so every time a new house is built, he says, a vacancy is created somewhere else — most likely in a neighborhood that can ill afford it.
"But more importantly, without this influx of new housing, we would have the possibility to fix up and fill the vacant houses in the neighborhoods, which is an incredibly important part of the problem because that's driving down property values," he says.
And low property values make it difficult for people to get home-equity loans to maintain their property, White says.
The city could, instead, invest its money to rebuild vacant houses using local labor, he says. And once the houses are fixed, the city could implement an urban homestead program, White says, which would build owner-occupancy in neighborhoods, create jobs, and boost property values.
"This is an alternative way that we could use our money to actually create jobs and build wealth," he says.
Rochester did have an urban homesteading program at one time in which people bought vacant houses for $1 and were then given a set amount of time to make repairs. The new homeowners were on their own to find financing for the overhaul.
The problem in many cases was that the cost of repairs was more than the houses were worth on the market once they were fixed up. Where Rochester's program worked, say people who were involved in city government at the time, was in neighborhoods with decent property values like the 19th Ward and the South Wedge.
Lovely Warren, City Council president and the Democratic candidate for mayor, has made education the keystone of her campaign. White, by design, hasn't had a lot to say about education or the Rochester school district during his run.
"I'm running for mayor of Rochester," he says. "I'm not running for school board. And the only way the mayor has any say over education other than the financing of education is if we go to mayoral control, which I am completely opposed to."
White does say that the way that Rochester provides its share of funding to the school district is backward. Instead of finding out how much the district needs from the city to properly educate students, White says, the city gives the district the base amount required by state law, and then the district figures out how much education it can afford with the money provided by the city, state, and other sources.
"We need to find a way to pay for what the school district tells us they need," he says.
On policing, White has said several times that if elected, he would replace Police Chief James Sheppard. Sheppard is good on outreach, White says, but poor on management and supervision. He cites a few examples to make his case, including the rampant "fixing" of parking tickets uncovered by the Democrat and Chronicle last year.
"I see officers behaving in a way that indicates they are poorly supervised," White says. "It may be in the culture. It may be difficult to fix. But [Sheppard's] not doing it."
White has also released a 10 p.m. plan to combat street-corner drug sales. Young people would be given jobs through the summer, and then paid to stay in school during the academic year, as long as they meet "acceptable standards for student attendance."
White says his vision is a Rochester that invests in itself and lifts itself up — the whole city, not just a privileged few.
"I have a vision of a for-us-by-us Rochester, and that we are building the things we need, making the stuff we need here in Rochester to lift ourselves up," he says. "I did not grow up in the lesser Rochester, but that doesn't mean I can't understand it. And I have gone to a great deal of effort to come up with solutions, rather than just talk about my experience growing up."