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A modest little proposal for revitalizing downtown 

A good bit of attention is focused on downtown right now, which is great. Developers are pumping a lot of money into new housing. The city is planning improvements for Main Street. And there are dreamers: Rochester Broadway Theatre League’s Arnie Rothschild is dreaming of a performing arts center. Mayor Lovely Warren wants something that will increase both people and jobs. Some folks are dreaming of another big park. Others are dreaming of bringing in major retail stores (an increasingly quixotic dream, since nationally, some of those companies are in trouble).

So let me toss out my own dream – but first, let me make a suggestion: that we step back a minute and think about what downtown should be. Should it be simply the center of the city? Just another residential neighborhood, designed primarily for hip young professionals and affluent retirees? An entertainment center predominantly for city residents? An entertainment center for the region?

Several decades ago, we went through a pretty thorough, impressive process to think this through. Committees were formed. Public forums were held. Questionnaires were run in area newspapers, including this one.

The conclusion, after all that, was that downtown is important to the region, that the region needs a vibrant, multi-purpose core, serving and supported by people throughout the region, providing services and entertainment that our multiple individual small communities can’t provide on their own.

There was a lot of talk about the importance of the river, the importance of increasing public access along it (which the Warren administration is working on now). The importance of protecting and using the river access we already have. (Some of the folks pushing for a new downtown park might want to dream up ideas for better use of our existing downtown riverside parks.)

Rochester’s downtown was declining when that big study was done, and it continued to decline afterwards, for reasons we all know. Many US cities have experienced the same thing. We’re exceptionally fortunate, in fact, that downtown is as healthy as it is. A lot of credit for that goes to neighborhood associations and other downtown activists, to cultural and educational institutions who have stayed downtown when they could have followed many of their patrons to the suburbs, and to a persistent group of downtown business people who have hung on or started up downtown, despite formidable odds.

And credit goes to a succession of city elected officials and staff, including current ones, who have believed fiercely in downtown and have been willing to direct money and subsidies to downtown interests, despite the city’s tight finances.

And now, of course, a lot of credit goes to the downtown developers who are renovating a variety of old buildings and turning them into housing and commercial space, despite minimal regional population growth.
That’s the kind of thing we need if downtown is to be a true regional core. That, and a commitment by leaders in the region’s public and private sector to treat downtown’s health as vital to the health of every part of this diverse community.

Which brings me to my dream: convincing the area’s large companies to move their headquarters downtown. We may not be the home of the major multinational players that we once were, but we do still have homegrown companies to be proud of: Wegmans and Paychex, for instance.

In Detroit, Quicken Loans’ chief Dan Gilbert has helped spur that city’s downtown revitalization by moving his company’s headquarters in from the suburbs, buying and renovating other buildings, and encouraging other companies to move downtown.

Where a company has its corporate headquarters makes a statement about that company and how it views its community. With Wegmans, a highly visible building in downtown Rochester, with that big “W” on the side, would say a lot about Wegmans’ commitment to the city. And it might counter the criticism Wegmans got when it closed nearly all of its urban supermarkets.

(Yes, a move would be expensive. I’d bet that City Hall and COMIDA could find some incentives.)

Locating corporate headquarters in the suburbs does little except provide a bit of tax revenue for those individual communities. Locating them downtown does that and a lot more: It puts life into the area surrounding its headquarters. It brings in employees who eat and shop downtown. It puts people on the street. And not insignificantly, it says that this company believes in the importance of a vibrant downtown.

If I were the mayor, I’d put together a team to play the role Dan Gilbert has played in Detroit and encourage Wegmans, Paychex, and others to move their offices downtown. (My nominees to serve with the mayor: UR President Joel Seligman and the developers now investing downtown.)

Moving the headquarters of Wegmans, Paychex, and other companies downtown wouldn’t “save” the city. Urban revitalization is complicated, it’s hard, and there are no quick fixes. Schools, as we all know, are Rochester’s biggest challenge, and they’re the most important at the moment. And even with schools, there are no quick fixes.

But until this entire community agrees that downtown isn’t simply one neighborhood among many, until the entire Greater Rochester community agrees that the health of downtown Rochester is vital to the health of the region, downtown and the neighborhoods surrounding it will continue to face an uncertain future, in competition with their adjacent suburbs.

On their websites, both Wegmans and Paychex list “Rochester” as the home of their corporate headquarters. No, it’s not. Wegmans’ headquarters is in Gates. Paychex’s is in Penfield. The headquarters of Xerox, Bausch and Lomb, and Gannett used to be in downtown Rochester. That they no longer are says something.

Moving corporate headquarters downtown wouldn’t solve all of downtown’s problems, but it would be a start. I keep going back to a statement that Joel Seligman made when he was arguing for putting the photonics headquarters in the Sibley Building: “If we’re going to revitalize Rochester, it starts on Main Street.”

Yes indeed.
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