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Fast Ferry acts 

City Hall has released the list of 11 people Mayor Bill Johnson and City Council President Lois Giess are recommending for a new city-run corporation to oversee fast-ferry operations called the Rochester Ferry Company.

There are 11 appointments to be made, and state legislation requires those appointments to be made by Mayor Bill Johnson and City Council President Lois Giess. Johnson and Giess are also required to sit on the board, leaving four members to be recommended by Giess and five by the mayor. Also according to state law, two (and only two) of the 11 appointments have to be community members, with the other nine coming from within city administration. So there's not much leeway here.

Johnson's recommendations: City Budget Director William Ansbrow, Parks Commissioner Loretta Scott, Environmental Services Commissioner Ed Doherty, Deputy Mayor Jeff Carlson, and Charles Barrentine, director of corporate Kodak operating systems.

Giess's recommendations: Councilmembers Benjamin Douglas, Wade Norwood, and Gladys Santiago; and Karen Noble Hanson, director of finance for the Episcopal Diocese of Rochester and former Wilmorite executive.

City Council is scheduled to vote on the appointments at a special meeting in council chambers (City Hall, 30 Church Street) on Thursday, January 20, at 5:15 p.m.

The two community appointments have been generally considered the most important, since that's where the city will look to gather outside business and financial expertise. The trick was finding folks who have the experience and the time, since this board will be in high-intensity mode during the weeks leading up to a bid for the boat (an auction is scheduled for February 28) and, if successful, the re-launch of the service.

"As long as things are going along fine, this is a fine board," says Kent Gardner, director of economic analysis for the Center of Governmental Research. "Ninety percent of the time, a board's job is to give overall guidance and provide a link between elected officials and the public. Surely, these people do that well. But 10 percent of the time or less, a board has to make some critical operational decisions, judgments that require an understanding of internal financials. That becomes a challenge for a board like this. It might be difficult for this board to have the objectivity and technical understanding necessary to make tough decisions."

Gardner's concern stems mainly from the fact that the state will allow only two community members on the board, limiting the ability for the board to "back up far enough and see the numbers in a large enough context."

"All the numbers I've seen forecast for the ferry service are generated with implicit or explicit assumptions," Gardner says. "That ends up being a key role for a board: not only asking whether the numbers presented are correct, but whether the assumptions behind those numbers are reasonable. It's difficult sometimes for internal people to get far enough removed from the numbers to see them as valid or suspect."

Council will also vote Thursday on two related pieces of ferry legislation: changing the Rochester Ferry Company from a non-profit to a limited-liability company, and approving the agreement between the city and Rochester Ferry.

RAC and you

Members of the downtown Rochester Athletic Club (50 Chestnut Street) were given a holiday surprise right after Christmas: news that the club had been sold.

As of December 29, 2004, the club is officially known as The Downtown Fitness Club. Its new owner, John Hutchings, was a fitness instructor and club manager with RAC from 1997 to 2003.

News that an established business is pulling out of downtown is never good. But the RAC is convinced the downtown club, and its members, will be better off under new ownership.

Duane Pieri, a RAC partner and the former owner of the downtown club, says he simply could not keep up with the unique needs of the downtown facility, which is situated in a huge 100-year-old building.

"Back when I bought the club in 1999, that was the only focus I had," he says. "And I was working 55 or 60 hours a week. Then I was split between downtown and Perinton, and it's hard to run that location with our business model on 30 hours a week. It was a little bit more out of my grasp than I thought it would be."

The sale basically came down to the fact that RAC's corporate model doesn't leave room for the extra time and attention to maintenance an older facility requires.

"The list [of maintenance issues] would be almost too long to go through," Pieri says. "When you're dealing with a building that's 100 years old versus a new facility that's built from scratch, it's just a different situation. And that club needed someone there to tend to the uniqueness of that facility. When you have a full-time owner-operator, you can handle those situations. When you've got a part-time owner-operator, you don't want to create a feeling of dissention amongst the members."

The RAC also paid an annual fee to the city so its downtown members and employees could park in the East End parking garage for free. "It's an expense we don't share at the other clubs," Pieri says. "My feeling is we were bringing a lot of business to the downtown area. People are coming down there three or four times a week."

Dedicating a full-time operator to the downtown club "wouldn't have fit in the structure of our corporation," Pieri says. "That club, because of its uniqueness, just doesn't fit what we want to do."

Instead, the RAC has been focused on having new facilities built almost from scratch.

"We want to keep the same design and layout for each of our facilities going forward," Pieri says. "If we have a person move from one club to another, they shouldn't notice any difference once they walk in."

And while that corporate model almost necessitates building new in the suburbs, Pieri says RAC hasn't written off the city.

"We still have a presence in the downtown Buffalo area," he says. "The building's just in a different state than the downtown Rochester building. I know they're trying to get more people to come downtown, but it just doesn't seem like there's much down there. Would you go visit downtown right now? Is there a particular landmark you'd like to see? We get people to come in several times a week. If there's enough down there, maybe they'll stay down there."

--- Chad Oliveiri

Moving on

"When you get to a fork in the road, take it."

Mitch Rowe used that Yogi Berra quote to sum up his decision to get out of county government. For the three years he has served as a county legislator, the city employee has been one of the strongest links between the two local governments. But the difficulty of serving with the county and the city simultaneously was draining. "Ultimately, I decided city," he says.

Tuesday he announced that he wouldn't seek reelection and would step down March 9.

Rowe cited his recent appointment to the post of Deputy Commissioner of Parks Recreation and Human Services at City Hall as an important factor in his decision. (Not because city brass pushed for him to step down, but because of "his breadth of duties," there, he says.)

Contrary to some rumors, the upcoming campaign for mayor isn't playing into his decision, Rowe says.

"I am whole-heartedly supporting Wade Norwood's campaign for mayor," he says. "But I'm not stepping down to spend more time on his campaign."

He also dismisses any notion that, as a Norwood backer, he'd receive a plum position in a possible new administration. He hasn't asked for nor been offered any such favor, he says, pointing out that that would be premature.

"It's a campaign, not a coronation," he says.

Furthermore, his current job is satisfying enough, and he has no particular political ambitions for the future.

"I don't have my eye set on anything," he says. "I'd be happy being Deputy Commissioner of Parks Recreation and Human Services for the next 20 years."

Rowe says he decided to stay on for the next two legislative cycles to try to address matters that he brought up during his time in the legislature, including proposed changes to the county's tax delinquency program (see "A feeling of (fore)closure," November 3, 2004) and what he perceives is an imbalance of power between the administrative and executive branches of county government.

His likely successor on the lej is Stephen Eckel, a 39-year-old photography professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, and a stay-at-home father of two. Eckel received the backing of Democrats in the city portion of Rowe's district (the 26th), and will likely gain the support of the Democratic committees in the towns of Gates, Greece, and Irondequoit, "given that Mitch is supporting him," says Monroe County Democratic Chair Molly Clifford.

Legislature President Wayne Zyra will appoint a Democratic legislator to fill Rowe's seat until November's election on the basis of the party's recommendation.

Rowe says Eckel is also considering running to represent the district in the fall.

--- Krestia DeGeorge

Orchestrating finance

The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra ended the 2004 fiscal year in the red. And though this season's numbers are already looking up, the Board of Directors is sending out a community plea to keep those figures strong.

Last Wednesday, January 12, the RPO reported the financial results of the 2003-2004 season, which ended August 31. The group had a $209,085 operating loss on its $8.1 million budget, slightly less than the $220,000 loss projected in October. This jumps the deficit by $60 thousand to $1.4 million.

The bad news: In fiscal year 2004, contributions were down 4 percent, ticket earnings were down 3 percent, government help was down 10 percent. Musicians, conductors, and staff have all agreed to wage freezes and a 1 percent reduction in pension contributions for the current season.

The good news: Last year's expenses were virtually flat, net assets grew to $16.5 million, and this year's subscription sales are up 14 percent.

"The RPO offers an exceptionally high-quality experience for its audiences," said Board of Directors Chair Ingrid Stanlis in a press release last week. "To be able to continue providing this high quality, we are very dependent on increasing amounts of community support."

The deadline for a $150,000 challenge grant from anonymous donors was recently extended until the end of January, in the hopes that individual donors can amass the full $300,000 --- the amount needed to redeem the donors' full pledge. The community fund is short more than $80,000.

--- Erica Curtis

Assigning Randy

As Randy Kuhl gets his feet wet in Washington, there's already one small tidbit of good news for his district.

The region's newest congressman was assigned seats on the House of Representatives' agriculture and transportation committees. While they don't have the high profile of his successor Amo Houghton's committees --- Ways and Means and International Relations --- both deal with issues of critical importance to Kuhl's largely rural, far-flung district.

The powerful Buffalo-area representative Tom Reynolds pointed out in a press release announcing the assignments that Kuhl would be the only New York representative on the ag committee. That could be especially important, not just for his district but for the entire state, since despite New York's huge ag industry, it routinely loses out on lucrative federal farm subsidies.

Kuhl also sought a waiver allowing him to serve on a third committee. Press Secretary Bob Van Wicklin told City Newspaper that Kuhl expects to know by this week if he'll receive it. If he does, Van Wicklin says Kuhl will vie for a spot on the House education committee. Kuhl chaired the corresponding committees during his time in the state Senate, Van Wicklin says.

--- Krestia DeGeorge

Pataki squares off

Governor George Pataki refrained from throwing some love to Renaissance Square in his last State of the State address, leaving local media to wring its hands over his perceived snub of a $230 million project requiring a goodly amount of state money.

But, alas, with the release of his 2005-2006 state budget proposal on Tuesday, Pataki reversed a 2004 veto of an $18-million funding stream for the project. This signifies an obvious vote of confidence from the governor on the Renaissance, which calls for building a combined bus terminal, performing arts center, and MCC Advanced Technology Education Center at the corner of Main and Clinton.

--- Chad Oliveiri

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