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The dead center of downtown Rochester could thrive with life again, if only county Republicans would get out of the way.

            That's what Democratic city officials are saying, and though they do their fair share of useless political sniping, in this case, I happen to believe them. If you care what happens to the heart of downtown, you should consider doing so, too.

            What am I talking about? A very big idea that's gotten little attention thus far. A few people are talking about it, including some major players in local politics and business, but mostly in whispers and vague allusions to how it could happen. It's time to bring it out into the open...

            The government (state, county, city, or some combination thereof) should buy the Sibley Building from Wilmorite's Rochwil Associates partnership and make it the home of Monroe Community College's proposed Advanced Technology Education Center.

            MCC officials have been eyeing several sites west of the river, most near West Main Street and Plymouth Avenue, to build the proposed tech center (called ATEC) from scratch. Republican county officials, who control the college's purse strings, are apparently in favor of those sites.

            The cost in public money: $60 million, split evenly by the county and the state. The cost to the vitality of the city's center: potentially devastating.

            Why? Because MCC's plans also call for the ATEC site to be the location of its Damon City Campus, which is currently in the Sibley Building on East Main Street, in the city's blighted center. According to a Wilmorite representative, Damon is the only thing keeping the building from falling into utter and irreversible financial ruin. Of Sibley's roughly 750,000 square feet of leasable space, only about two-thirds are rented, with Damon's 200,000 square feet occupying almost half of that. You do the math.

            As City reported last month ("Big debt downtown," May 14), since acquiring the Sibley Building with financial assistance from the city in the early 1990s, Wilmorite has been unable to keep or attract tenants there. As a result, it's racked up nearly $11 million in unpaid taxes and related payments, loan debts, and late fees. This situation does no one any good, least of all the city.

            Having colleges, non-profits, and other institutions at Sibley was considered essential to the building's --- and downtown's --- success back then, and that's still the case today. The property has already lost such major tenants as SUNY Brockport (lured away by the opportunity to acquire its own building), Catholic Family Services (ditto), and, most recently and controversially, the state's Department of Motor Vehicles office.

            Private businesses have been leaving cities for the suburbs for several decades now, and there's broad agreement that this nationwide market trend cannot be reversed much at all without major public investment in urban areas. For example, in addition to keeping bus riders out of the rain, those advocating on behalf of building Rochester Central Station across the street from Sibley say it will revitalize downtown. The project would cost nearly $60 million of public money, and prominent Republicans, like transit board chairman Bill Nojay, are its loudest cheerleaders.

Granted, putting ATEC and Damon at West Main and Plymouth would help revitalize the city's Cascade District west of the river, but we'd be robbing Peter to pay Paul. That is, we'd be spending $60 million to build a new building in a city already awash in vacant commercial space; and by taking Damon out of Sibley, we'd be creating 200,000 more square feet of vacant space down the street.

            ATEC could join Damon at Sibley for as little as a third of the cost of building facilities for both from the ground up. Rochwil reportedly owes its mortgagee $14 million on the building. However, its tax debt makes it an unattractive sell, and the city is threatening to foreclose and take ownership of the property in a couple years, anyway. Who knows? The current owners may be willing to accept a few million less than that to get out of this mess.

            MCC's master plan calculates new construction costs (part of the $60 million price tag) for ATEC/Damon at $37 million. That's $185 for each of 200,000 square-feet of new construction. The Wilmorite rep, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says renovation costs at Sibley would run about $30 per-square-foot: $6 million for 200,000 square-feet.

            Assuming the building costs $14 million to acquire (a high estimate), that puts the price tag at $20 million. For argument' s sake, add another $10 million in "contingency costs," as they say in the trade, and it's still half the cost of building new.

            The Wilmorite rep, who's studied MCC's plans, says the building has more than enough parking and space to meet the college's needs, even if it expands the facility. It also has the "high bay spaces" MCC's master plan says ATEC/Damon would require, and is already up to the fairly strict building codes necessary for college occupancy (hell, Damon's there now).

            Based on MCC's enrollment figures, a combined ATEC/Damon would bring over 6,000 full-time college students (and thousands more part-timers) downtown every day. As a catalyst for jumpstarting the center of the city, it's hard to beat a plan that guarantees the presence of thousands of well-educated, free-spending people day and night.

            Struggling Midtown Plaza would certainly benefit, as would Rochester Central Station. Plans for RCS call for as much as 370,000 square feet of new office and retail space. Rather than end up competing for scarce tenants with an empty Sibley, RCS could attract businesses based on the fact there's a building full of people next door.

So, what's the hang up? Politics, as usual.

            "Stupid politics," says Deputy Mayor Jeff Carlson, whose comments reflect just how contentious MCC's plans have already become.

            In an interview last month for "Big debt downtown," Carlson told City of how he ran into County Executive Jack Doyle at a Greater Rochester VisitorsAssociation meeting, and was told by Doyle than some Republican county legislators wanted both ATEC and Damon located outside the city, on MCC's main campus in Brighton. Spokesmen for Doyle did not return calls seeking comment.

            MCC President Tom Flynn is "a good guy," Carlson says, but he's working with a budget controlled by the county, and thus is beholden to Doyle.

            Flynn also did not return calls seeking comment. MCC spokeswoman Cynthia Cooper reiterated past comments to City that the college has yet to select a site, pending approval of the project's funding. However, she says, "I don't think it's any secret that the county has sites it wants us to look at."

            Mayor Bill Johnson, the Democrats' candidate for county exec this year, is opposed to MCC's plans for relocating Damon, but hasn't gone so far as to propose that ATEC be built at Sibley. He also did not return calls seeking comment.

            Democrats are very sensitive to Republican charges that attempts to bolster the Sibley Building are intended to bail out Wilmorite chairman Tom Wilmot, a significant donor to the Dems. At the same time, they raise the possibility that ATEC sites the county's pushing would benefit Republican supporters.

            Whatever the truth of those allegations, they're far removed from the necessity at hand and the cares of the general public. For example, if rank-and-file Republicans in the suburbs were offended by the idea of Wilmot making money, they wouldn't shop at EastView Mall, Marketplace Mall, or Pittsford Plaza --- all Wilmorite properties. One suspects they've got other things on their minds. Our local leaders would do well to do the same.

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