There was a time when people complained that business leaders called all the shots in Rochester. Then businesses started consolidating and relocating corporate offices. Big-business commitment and leadership disappeared. And we started longing for the old days.
Well, you may have noticed that in City Hall, the old days are back.
Last November, Rochester elected a police chief to run the city. What we got was... the Chamber of Commerce!
The new corporation counsel is a former RG&E chief and a leader of the business execs known as the Rump Group. The new HR head is a former Xerox VP. The new deputy mayor is the former CEO of the Center for Governmental Research. The new head of economic development is a banking executive.
When the new mayor and his advisors looked for their dream team, they looked outside of government, outside of politics --- primarily, to the business community.
This team certainly has strengths, one of which, as many observers have said, is "connections." Particularly in economic development, connections within the business world, comfort moving in the business world, could be a plus. New Economic Development Commissioner Carlos Carballada has lots and lots of connections. And lots of respect in the business community.
It's no small thing to see people like Carballada accepting what will be a tough job. Carballada's 71 years old. He doesn't need this job. He took it, he says, to serve the community.
But the team also has some potential weaknesses --- staying power among them. Will the business execs be able to put up with the hassles of their new jobs? They're now government officials. They answer to the public, not to stockholders and a board of directors. They operate in the political realm now, where change is slow and obstacles are often enormous. (What kind of "connections" does the administration have in Albany? How much tolerance will the business execs have for the Gang of Three?)
And what about goals, vision? What, for instance, does the Duffy administration want the economic development department to do? What does the business community want that department to do?
Is the goal simply to make Rochester more "business friendly"? Needless red tape is destructive, but not all red tape is needless. Running a city is a balancing act. Business interests sometimes conflict with those of residents --- on zoning, for instance. Will the Duffy administration seek out and respect the opinions of residents? (If I were a neighborhood-association leader, I'd be on guard. Just in case.)
Is the goal simply to keep the businesses we have in the city and attract new ones? Rochester certainly needs more businesses, to provide jobs and increase the tax base. Out at Kodak Park, jobs and tax base are dropping with each falling building.
But the vision can't be limited to the city. What Rochester needs is something far bigger than that. What it needs, what it cannot survive without, is true regional planning and economic development. And frankly, the suburbs need that as much as the city does.
The first requirement: end the competition among us for development: stop giving tax breaks, for instance, to businesses that move from one Monroe County location to another. That will require extensive tax-base sharing, so that when we try to attract a new business, we no longer care where in the region it locates. And so that when a local business expands, we no longer care where --- because we all share in the taxes from the growth.
We'll never get back to financial health without regional planning and regional economic development. Our intra-county and intra-region competition is killing us. It's robbing the city and the older suburbs. And it's destroying our quality of life. Many suburban officials are desperate for development, regardless of how it changes the character of their towns.
This will require an enormous mind shift, particularly among the leaders of county government and the Monroe County Republican Party. They have fought this kind of metro approach before. Republican Party chair Steve Minarik will see to it that they fight it again.
And here, perhaps, is Rochester's greatest opportunity with the Duffy team. Maybe the business leaders now running City Hall can inspire a coup in county government and in the Republican Party. Maybe they can convince the Republicans who control nearly all of the suburban towns that there is nothing to fear from metropolitan planning.
But that will require business leaders --- within City Hall and without --- to get involved in politics. In the recent past, they have been reluctant to do that. Now, they have little choice.
This is, in a very real sense, a bold experiment: business leaders doing the governing. We seem to have tried everything to turn the economy around in Upstate New York. If this group can't do it, what else is left?