January 26, 2005 News & Opinion » Featured story

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Why Rochester? Why now? 

Moving to town against the tide

It's no longer a surprise to anyone when a young person announces plans to move away from Rochester in favor of someplace more energetic, glamorous, or cosmopolitan. And why not? Childless people who aren't interested in mortgages and lawnmowers may as well enjoy a robust metropolitan lifestyle or sunny beach community.

In the past, working people assumed they would have to move to follow their jobs. But increasingly, people in many fields can work anywhere by taking advantage of technology that didn't exist 10 years ago. More people are in a position to make housing decisions based on emotion and family rather than on work assignments. And as 30- and 40-somethings look around the country for that elusive triumvirate (affordable housing, good schools, and a pleasant quality of life), they might be enticed to choose the Rochester region.

"This is an idea that's been kicking around for a long time," says Kent Gardner, an economist and research director for the Center for Governmental Research. "On balance, we're seeing that more people are leaving than coming, but that's a net issue. The census data shows that people moving here are moving against the tide."

Gardner recalls that last year, an area college president suggested an initiative to systematically reach out to alumni who graduated from nearby schools 10 years ago, in an effort to entice them back to Rochester.

"The idea was to say to people, 'Isn't that long commute getting to you?' You know, 'Rochester is still here.' It's something that a lot of people have talked about anecdotally, as baby boomers try to get their kids to move back."

This is not to say that an unemployed person or a person living in poverty elsewhere --- in Buffalo, say, or Milwaukee or Cleveland --- will necessarily fare any better in Rochester. Plenty of economic and employment data suggests otherwise. And it doesn't discount the unavoidable fact that property taxes here are high. But for a mobile professional with a steady income, it makes logical sense: As housing costs skyrocket in many cities, people with portable jobs who are seeking affordable homes could do well to cash out of more expensive areas and come here, to live on what one Rochester transplant calls "easy street."

Of course, easy street, like the cost of living, is in the eye of the beholder.

"Cost of living is very hard to get your arms around," says Gardner. "Cost of living is a very, very personal thing. It depends on how the tax system hits you, and that depends on who you are. Some cynics would say that the lower cost of housing in the Rochester area is offset by our high property taxes. But if you're coming from Westchester County, the idea of paying $6,000, $7,000, $8,000, or $9,000 in property taxes sounds like heaven. And the same thing is true for people out on [Long] Island. A person coming from [Manhattan] hasn't been paying those property taxes, but they have that pesky income tax."

The median home cost in the Greater Rochester region is less than half that of the median in the Northeast, according to data compiled by the National Association of Realtors. At the same time, some of Rochester's suburban schools, such as those in Brighton, consistently rank among the best in the nation.

Child Magazine ranked Rochester in 2001 as one of the top 10 US cities in which to raise a family, after weighing such factors as immunization rates, air and water quality, nearby recreational opportunities, average commute time, and average cost of a three-bedroom home. Other winning cities were Norfolk-Virginia Beach-Newport News, Virginia (median home price: $138,000); Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota ($199,000); Denver, Colorado ($238,000); and Anaheim, California ($643,600). The median home price here is $99,400.

"The cost of home ownership is a very large part of people's budget," says Gardner. "You don't expect the cost of supermarket products to vary greatly between here and San Jose, but the cost of taxes and homes is huge. And the quality of area schools is very significant when people are determining location. If you look at some of those very high tax districts, such as Westchester County, you see that people really do move there while their kids are in school and then move out."

Recent transplants from Manhattan, Boston, and Baltimore say they have experienced significant savings by moving here --- most notably in housing, but in other everyday costs as well. And the personal benefits, in terms of the quality of life for their families, have surpassed their hopes.

Lili Schwartz is a prime example. A graduate of Brighton High School, she had lived happily in Manhattan for a decade, working for Time Warner while running an independent graphic-design business. She loves New York, and had zero interest in returning to Rochester.

That changed after the birth of her daughter, Sadie, in 2003. Raising an infant in post-9/11 Manhattan suddenly became unappealing. Schwartz and her husband, Ben Agronick, wanted to stay in New York State but resisted Rochester, and initially considered several other upstate cities, including Albany.

But in addition to seeking affordable housing and excellent schools, Agronick felt especially strongly that he wanted to raise his daughter in a Jewish community; Brighton was the logical choice.

Schwartz's major concern in moving to Rochester was whether she would be able to retain her New York clients long-distance. Ten years ago, she says, it would have been unthinkable; no one had email then, and clients would have been unwilling to rely on someone who couldn't be readily available in person. Happily, she has not only kept all of her New York clients --- 90 percent of her business --- but has also expanded her client base.

"I thought people would need that face-to-face interaction with me," she says. "Now I've realized that they just want the work done; they don't care if they see me, and they're happy not to be paying the overhead of a Manhattan design firm."

Schwartz and Agronick report a significantly lower cost of living, which she says was not just limited to housing.

"Avocados in New York were $2.50 each, and here they're four for $5," she says. "Baby formula was $14, as opposed to $9 here. Organic milk costs $1 less per carton. I never saw cereal for under $4 a box in New York, and here you can get it for under $2. The subway is $2 any time you want to go someplace, so it was a minimum of $40 for two people to commute per week, and that's just going to work. Admittedly, on the flip side, our heating bill last year was pretty phenomenal here, because we have more space and the weather is colder."

One of the happy surprises of moving to Rochester was "the complete elimination of stress," she says.

"And it never really was as apparent as last week when I went back to New York to call on clients. The stress of the noise in New York was huge. But also the financial stress, the work stress," Schwartz says. "Living here, maybe you could have a hobby or come home from work early sometimes, and those are things that you don't do in New York."

Having a baby in New York was more difficult than she'd imagined, she says.

"Nothing in New York was family friendly," she says. The social scene is tailored to a childless lifestyle ("everyone eats dinner at 10 at night," she says) and she found it difficult to meet other parents. More frequently, in parks and parenting classes, she met the children's nannies.

"On one hand, in New York we could go out to dinner late on a Monday night, but I'm not doing that with Sadie," she says. "Entertainment is a lot more limited here, but with a baby that becomes limited anyhow."

In moving to Rochester, Schwartz ended up in a place she had never imagined herself: just a few blocks from her parents.

"I just thought I was some big loser crawling back to Mom and Dad," Schwartz says. "I thought that would lower my self-esteem, like I wasn't self-sufficient and I couldn't do it on my own, but for raising a kid, it's nice to have family around. It's about providing Sadie with a good foundation.

"What you have to go through to live in New York is so hard, and once you have kids, I just don't see what the reward is," she says. "I think New York offers so much, but there really are certain times in your life for different places. After going through this move, I understand why people retire to Florida. It's set up for retirement. Rochester is set up for families."

Dan Steinglen moved to Rochester from the Baltimore area at the end of August with his wife, Kaisa, and sons Roni, 7, and Derian, 2.

Steinglen, 33, is a regional sales manager for a company called Larox. He could have moved anywhere within his sales territory, but he chose Fairport for its housing and schools.

"You can't beat the housing," Steinglen says. "In New York State, taxes are high. They're two times higher than in Maryland, but I'm paying for quality schools. In Maryland, I'd have wanted to pay for private schools, and even considering the lower taxes, it would have cost much more.

"In fact, it's even more significant than the lower cost of housing itself," he says. "Everything has dropped significantly since we've moved here: the grocery bill, the electric bill, the water bill, the car insurance. We went from paying $100 per week for groceries to paying $75 per week for the same products. Moving here was almost like getting a raise because I have the same salary."

The only product he's found to be more expensive in Rochester is gasoline, which he says was $.30 per gallon cheaper in Baltimore.

"The Baltimore and Washington areas are very congested with an exorbitant cost of living," Steinglen says. "There were weighty reasons as to why we chose Rochester. What we could afford in Fairport would really get us a small townhome in a rather undesirable area in Baltimore. We're more comfortable here, and we do think it's a beautiful area. We have two children and our 7-year-old is in school; we're very happy he's in the Fairport School District. It's excellent for him and excellent for us. Our quality of life has improved, and we have a smaller community now."

Although they enjoyed Baltimore, they don't miss it, he says. "Among our favorite places to go was Annapolis; it has a lot of history, and we liked to visit the antique stores down along the coast. Baltimore and Rochester are not really comparable cities in terms of things to do. But we've been to the Strong Museum and other places, and our neighbors are outstanding."

New York winters were an attraction for Steinglen and Kaisa, a native of Finland, since they both like snow. But they were skeptical that Kaisa, a stay-at-home mother, would connect with a Finnish community here as she had in Baltimore, where there was a fairly large population of Fins near the embassy.

"My wife went to Wegmans the first week we moved in, and she's got a little Finland sticker on her car," Steinglen says. "She came out of the grocery store, and there was a person standing next to her car asking, 'Are you from Finland?' So she's hooked up with these Finnish ladies now. It's been pretty easy to settle in and make friends."

Massachusetts native Tanya Mooza Zwahlen, 28, moved to Rochester last year with her husband. The two had met as students at Boston College, and later moved to Ithaca while she attended graduate school. When she finished her studies, they considered other options before choosing Rochester.

"We knew we didn't want to go back to Boston," she says. "We were newly married and looking to buy a house and settle down. We knew we wouldn't be able to afford anything in Boston without both of us working full-time, and we want to have kids. We wanted to try Rochester and see how the quality of life was. We knew it was going to be a 5- to 7-year move to see if we liked it."

Zwahlen, an urban planner, accepted a position with Bergmann Associates working mainly on transportation projects in Rochester and nearby areas like Watkins Glen and Montour Falls. Her husband, Christian Zwahlen, took a job teaching English and theology at McQuaid Jesuit High School.

"It definitely was affordable," she says. "We found a great house here in the city for a reasonable price. The cost of a house in Boston would be three-and-a-half times what it costs here, but there I wouldn't be paid three times what I'm being paid here. And the quality here is better. We can afford to take vacations and do other things."

Although her husband had grown up in Rochester and still has family here, Zwahlen had visited only half-a-dozen times before moving.

"I had been to the Lilac Festival once, and I'd visited in the summer. Now we've made it our own, and I've explored a lot of different areas of the city.

"I like it here," she says. "It's more mid-western than I thought it would be, and by that I mean that people are friendly. Strangers will talk to you on the street, and that doesn't happen in Boston. Pretty quickly, in a year, I have a nice network of friends. And professionally, I feel like it's a big enough city that people are doing really interesting things, and yet it's small enough that I feel well connected."

Zwahlen's only complaint is that she prefers the retail shopping that's available in Boston.

"But since we have Jet Blue, and US Air flies pretty cheaply to Boston every now and again, I don't hesitate to hop on a plane and shop there, and visit my friends," she says. "I went to a Red Sox game in September on a whim."

Alison Goldstein moved back to Rochester from Boston in February.

"The cost of living in Boston is ridiculous," Goldstein says. "I was paying $1,100 a month with a roommate who was paying the same, and that didn't include parking. I have an amazing apartment here that's 10 times as good, and I'm paying a third of what I was paying before.

"The traffic was a huge thing for me too. If I had to go three miles to work, it took 45 minutes to an hour," she says. Goldstein, a 1995 graduate of Brighton High School, took a job with her family's business while launching her own new company, a valet parking service called The Rochester Valet.

"This is a great place to raise your children," says Goldstein, who hopes to get married and have a family here. "It's a beautiful area to live. It has that New Englandy feel with the changing of the leaves and the winter. And it's just got so many good things. If you buy a house here, you're going to get a lot more for your money than you would somewhere else.

"In a city like Boston you feel like you're just another face in the big crowd," she says. "I feel like it's very much what I would call a pit-stop area. People go right after college and meet somebody, but nobody really settles down there. After college, a lot of my friends moved to big cities and a lot of them in the past couple of years have moved back to the Rochester area."

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