News & Opinion » Columns

Why the secrecy?


CountyExecutive Maggie Brooks: Can she fulfill her campaign promises?

File photo

You can feel it in the air: Even people who supported Bill Johnson for county executive are embracing Maggie Brooks. They like her warmth. They like her promise of cooperation.

            I like them, too. And I'm fighting my cynicism. I'd like to believe that a new day did dawn in MonroeCounty on January 1. I'd like to believe that the secrecy and arrogance of the Doyle-Minarik days are over. That Monroe's two largest governments, county and city, will work together and move this community forward.

            The problem is, while Jack Doyle's gone (and even, stunningly, Bill Nojay; at least from public view; at least for the moment), Steve Minarik still runs the Republican Party. And the cynic in me is worried. The cynic in me doesn't like the way the grand RenaissanceCenter project --- "performing arts center," bus terminal, and MCC tech center --- came about, and the way it was announced.

            I might learn to love the RenaissanceCenter. I still think a performing arts center --- "center," not "theater," as in "one-single-theater-for-Broadway-shows" --- is hugely important. I like the MCC tech center idea, though I'm concerned about the location. I don't like the bus terminal, but if we're going to get it, I don't have a problem with its being located with the arts center.

            But to love the RenaissanceCenter, I'll have to overcome some major concerns.

First: This is the biggest project proposed for downtown Rochester in eons. Downtown Rochester, as some county leaders remind us when they cut funding for downtown police services, is part of the City of Rochester. Downtown is City Hall's responsibility.

            But the RenaissanceCenter was planned without the knowledge, and without the involvement, of the mayor of the City of Rochester. The work was done, behind the scenes, apparently by local Republicans. Even leaders of important local arts institutions --- the Arts and Cultural Council and Garth Fagan Dance --- said they had not heard about the RenaissanceCenter until the Democrat and Chronicle announced it on January 6.

            Oh, yeah, I know: Renaissance promoters point to the initial discussions about a performing arts center seven years ago. But nobody could suggest seriously that this project is the same as that one.

            The official word from Republican leaders is that Maggie Brooks conceived the idea of putting the arts center, tech center, and transit center together. Terrific. But when she thought of it, why didn't she take it to the mayor, who up to then had been considered a partner in the arts center planning? Why didn't she suggest that the city and county determine whether it was feasible, whether it was a good development idea for that prime piece of city real estate?

            Why didn't the two of them announce the plan, together, the way they announced the latest development on the soccer stadium?

            All this creates the impression that county government still has a go-to-hell attitude toward the city, that the county will do what it likes, wherever it likes. This from a Republican leadership that has railed against big government, that insists that local municipalities are supremely important, that says government power should remain close to the people, so that local citizens, not faceless bureaucrats, will make decisions about their communities.

            This looks worrisomely like the actions of the Doyle-Minarik machine that tried to force a thruway exit and soccer complex on the residents of Chili and a zoo expansion into the city's SenecaPark.

Second: The Renaissance Center could resurrect the suspicion that all along, the "arts center" plan was designed to get public money for a new theater for the Rochester Broadway Theatre League.

            Look back at the early days of the planning for an arts center, in the mid-1990's. At the time, there were two major arts facilities in the dream stages: one for the EastmanSchool and the Rochester Philharmonic, the other for the Rochester Broadway Theatre League.

            Both would be expensive. And both would require an enormous fund-raising effort. They would be competing for the same dollars --- and perhaps draining funds from other crucial arts institutions.

            In an extremely bright move, Jack Doyle and Bill Johnson appointed a committee representing a broad variety of arts and community leaders. The goal: to see what the community needed in the way of arts facilities --- for large and small groups --- and what it could afford. And to recommend something that would reflect those needs and that affordability.

            After a lot of work, the committee recommended a facility with four theaters: one for touring Broadway shows and other major attractions (with the Rochester Broadway Theatre League a major user), one for the Rochester Philharmonic, and smaller ones for the smaller groups.

            At that point, the plan went underground. A five-member committee (four of them city and county officials) took over, and the public discourse --- and much of the public enthusiasm --- was snuffed out. The smaller group came out with its own plan: build the Broadway roadhouse first, and sometime later, add the smaller stuff. That plan, too, disappeared from public view --- until early this month, when it surfaced, in a revised form (architect's conceptual sketch and all), as part of the RenaissanceCenter.

            At some point, Renaissance promoters say, the arts center could consist of two theaters --- a big one for RBTL, and a small one for smaller arts groups. But the big one would be built first. The smaller arts groups would get their theater when money was available. The push for the initial funding would be for the Broadway roadhouse.

            Meantime, the Eastman School of Music has gone its own way, designing renovations that will accommodate its own needs and those of the Rochester Philharmonic.

            In other words, we're right back where we started --- except that RBTL may get its theater, thanks to a heavy infusion of public money.

            Don't get me wrong: I don't object to the concept of a new facility for RBTL. I like Broadway shows: the more, the better. I don't object to using public funds for arts centers. But to call the theater in this new plan a "center" is a stretch.

            And this is dreadful public relations. RBTL will need private donations, for its new theater and for operations in the future. It will have to appeal to some of the same people who support the RPO, Geva, Garth Fagan Dance, the Downstairs Cabaret, Shipping Dock, and all of the other important area arts groups.

            The pity is, a real arts center could have been something wonderful. This one is born with a taint that could be hard to get rid of.

Third: The RenaissanceCenter and the way it came about creates the suspicion (ok: the suspicion in my mind) that the Brooks administration is really a Brooks-Minarik administration, following in the footsteps of its predecessor. The Doyle-Minarik administration made a science of trying to control as much federal and state money as it could get its hands on. And there were wonderful coincidences of big Republican donors getting nice county contracts.

            If the RenaissanceCenter dream becomes a reality, there will be lucrative contracts to award. (Already, Republican donor Max Farash has gotten out from under a tax burden by donating his Main Street property --- potentially part of the RenaissanceCenter site --- to the county.)

The RenaissanceCenter's creators (whoever they are) have trapped Bill Johnson. If he objects that he wasn't involved, he appears to be a whining obstructionist, criticizing anything that didn't originate in City Hall. And worse, as Maggie smiles and reaches out --- and hugs the mayor! --- Johnson growls and frowns.

            But Brooks has problems of her own. Steve Minarik has said that her style will be different. Style is nice. But substance is what's important.

            I want the Maggie Brookswe've been promised: open, honest, conciliatory, independent, committed to the concept of one Community of Monroe. Like many Monroe residents, I like the opening scenes of the Brooks administration. But the RenaissanceCenter staging has me worried.

            If Maggie Brooks is the county executive she promised she would be, she'll put her foot down, now. No more secrecy, and no more unilateralism.

            Secrecy and unilateralism create an aura of arrogance, and arrogance could doom Brooks' future. It did exactly that to Jack Doyle's.

            Want to comment? Write or The Mail, City Newspaper, 250 North Goodman Street, Rochester14607. Please include your name, address, and daytime phone number.