Rochester is a city of sharp contrasts. It can be a relaxed, exhilarating, and sometimes, an incredibly challenging place to live. Much of that is the result of an economy and job market that's had some dramatic highs and lows. While the Rochester metro has pockets of affluence and prosperity, it's no secret that the city has one of the highest poverty rates of any city in the country.
The last 30 years have been marked by job layoffs, anemic population growth, and shifting sands under Rochester's Big Three employers: Kodak, Bausch + Lomb, and Xerox. When news broke that one-time corporate giant Eastman Kodak was filing for bankruptcy, the story was met with plenty of emotion, though little surprise.
But roughly five years later, Rochester may be experiencing a long-anticipated upturn. Housing development is surging downtown and the Main Street corridor is transforming from outmoded retail space to market-rate housing and offices.
Roughly 6,000 residents, many of them young professionals, have moved into downtown lofts and apartments. The unemployment rate is at its lowest in years, and even Kodak, though considerably smaller than its former self, is showing signs of a comeback.
"The Big Three have had their struggles," says New York State Assembly member Harry Bronson. "The good thing is we didn't fall off the cliff."
Many of the area's employees who lost their jobs to downsizing and industry changes have been absorbed by smaller companies or they've started their own businesses, he says. New York ranks third in the country in the number of employees working in computer and high technology fields, he says. And the Rochester region is especially strong in the technology, biomedical, and food-processing industries, he says.
Bronson also points to the popular Finger Lakes wine trails and hospitality economies.
"Rochester's job market is strong," says Bob Duffy, Rochester's former mayor and New York's former lieutenant governor. "I really see it beginning to grow." Duffy is now president and CEO of the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce.
Duffy says he tries to avoid overselling photonics, but that he's convinced that it's a major growth opportunity for Rochester. Initially, it may only employ 50 to 100 people, "but it will be a magnet for other companies," he says.
And there are industries centered in Rochester that many people know little about, such as packaging.
"We have the companies here that are providing the packing for everything from cereal to razors," Duffy says.
High demand exists for workers in the skilled trades, too, he says.
"It's very difficult for employers because not enough young people are going into welding, for example," Duffy says. "The old tool-and-die industry is still very strong here. You can get a secure job, a good salary, and virtually unlimited overtime."
Many of the area's skilled trades and advanced manufacturing jobs are going unfilled due to lack of qualified employees. While Rochester is still a region that makes things, manufacturing now requires some college-level training usually involving math, engineering, and computer science.
One of the area's biggest assets by far is its higher education offerings. There are more than a dozen colleges and universities in the Rochester region. And their influence on the local economy, led by the University of Rochester and Rochester Institute of Technology, is profound and growing, Duffy says.
Will Rochester ever become one of the country's hot job markets? It happened before and it can happen again, he says. And he's not alone. Anne Kress, president of Monroe Community College, says she's amazed at how optimistic college students are about Rochester.
"When I talk to young people, I can't tell you how enthusiastic they are about Rochester's future, how hip it's become," Kress says. "We don't look outside ourselves."
Rochesterians have a weakness for nostalgia, she says.
"We need to keep looking forward," she says. The future is always going to look different than the past, "and that's a good thing," Kress says.