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Taking downtown’s pulse 

Too young to remember anything about the old downtown, most of Rochester's 20-somethings grew up listening to their parents whimper about Sibley's and Midtown Plaza. Now they're more than ready to see Rochester resemble some of the country's other wireless, espresso-sipping urban centers.

Rochester's young professionals --- that cherished demographic local economists, business people, and developers fret will leave the area for better opportunities --- are driving their own push to stop 20-something brain drain. And they're hoping their push will gain a little momentum with Center City Task Force: LIVE, a Tuesday Q&A session with the latest set of public servants playing a role in downtown's fate.

The task force, made up of City Council members Bill Pritchard, Adam McFadden, and Wade Norwood, will field questions from an audience whose median age is likely to be under 30. Since forming in December 2004, the task force has promised to use its clout on council to make changes downtown in a short amount of time.

"A lot of young people live and work downtown, and this is an opportunity for them to meet with the task force and get answers on projects like Renaissance Square and High Falls," says Kelly Saucke. Saucke is the chairperson of the ROC City Coalition, which is organizing the session.

"We're out there, and we want to know what their plans are for improving downtown parking; especially for the East End on Friday and Saturday nights," she says. "What kind of retail are they thinking about for downtown? And the Inner Loop, what's happening there?"

Downtown's core infrastructure is so obsolescent that the public doesn't need to be sold on revitalization. The problem has been achieving consensus. What is the best way to coax retail back to downtown? What mix of housing will lure urban pioneers? Would the Inner Loop serve the public better if it were filled in?

Mayor Bill Johnson's effort to lure market-rate housing to downtown has impressed Saucke. But most of it is out of reach for many people who are just starting their careers. "There needs to be more in the midrange," she says.

Concerns over crime and panhandling, warranted or not, continue to dog downtown, especially bustling sections like the East End. For Jennafer Maneta, president of the East End Merchant Association, it's all about perception.

"The Alexander Street Merchant Association has invested in its own security. They're out there every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday from 10:30 p.m. to 3:30 in the morning," says Maneta, who lives downtown and owns the new ROC City Hots on East near Alexander. "We're hopeful that the Task Force can help us get a more positive image outside of the immediate area. I've always felt very safe down here."

ROC City insists LIVE is not a disguised stumping opportunity for politicians like Norwood, who just recently received the local Democratic Party's nomination for mayor. But a voter-registration booth will be on site, and Norwood's getting a chance to address an audience of young potential voters who see their futures tied to downtown's progress.

"We're non-political because we don't want to discourage members from joining based on their party, Democrat or Republican," Saucke says. The ROC City Coalition, www.roccity.org, is an umbrella organization for more than a dozen young-professional groups.

Center City Task Force Chair Bill Pritchard is impressed by ROC City's strong interest in downtown development. But he's going to push for specifics from the group. "It's not enough to say 'we need retail downtown,'" he says.

A bumper crop of young people is eager to get involved, and Pritchard sees this event as an opportunity. "It takes more than new ideas and passion to get anything done in city and county government," he says. "You need experience, and we need to begin a more aggressive development program for the next generation."

Center City Task Force: Live will be held on Tuesday, May 31, at SoHo East (formerly Tonic), 336 East Avenue, at 5:30 p.m.

Speaking of Center City Task Force LIVE, downtown Rochester

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