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Leading the city's efforts on business, neighborhoods

Rochester Business Journal
March 14, 2014

Delmonize Smith, formerly an assistant professor of management at Rochester Institute of Technology, joined the administration of Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren. (Photo by Kimberly McKinzie)

As industry leaders continue to gauge the economic development philosophy of Rochester’s new mayor, the city’s commissioner of neighborhood and business development is pledging business as usual.

“I personally want to give the previous administration tremendous credit,” says Delmonize Smith, formerly an assistant professor of management at Rochester Institute of Technology. “Sitting from where I sat, being outside of this political spectrum and looking at some outcomes, you can see a lot of momentum taking place in center city.

“There are companies moving in, adding jobs. There are areas being developed that had not been developed. A key for me coming into this role was how to not interfere with that process.”

Big-ticket projects such as the proposed removal of the Inner Loop on the city’s East End and the marina development at the Port of Rochester have continued forward since Lovely Warren replaced Thomas Richards as mayor.

Smith seems more optimistic about redevelopment at the former Midtown Plaza site than even Richards was.

“In the past couple of weeks, I’ve had several meetings with developers who have said, ‘This is where I want to be; how do we get into this (Midtown) space?’” Smith says of both location and construction projects. “Those are exciting meetings to be part of.”

Warren maintains that high-profile projects will not be shortchanged, despite her priorities of improving the Rochester City School District and lifting impoverished neighborhoods.

“Being the commissioner of neighborhood and business development, I like what that means,” Smith says.

“It doesn’t mean neighborhood as being separate from business development. It’s how do we have it so our business development activities can benefit our neighborhoods and our most distressed areas.”

Smith, 37, oversees 157 employees in his department and a $13.7 million budget. He replaced Carlos Carballada, a retired bank executive recruited to public service by former Mayor Robert Duffy.

“I have a significant influence on how many of our dollars that come in from the federal and state level are dispersed,” Smith says. “Probably the most important aspect of this job is identifying how we can make the best use of those resources.”

Move to Rochester
Smith came to Rochester in 2007 to join the faculty at RIT’s Saunders College of Business.

“In the seven years I’ve been here, I’ve sat at two different tables,” he says of his time at RIT. “I’ll sit at the community table that’s focused on social issues. I have a passion for that, but I’ll be concerned because the business part of me would not see the sustainable model. I’d question where the funding would come from.

“Then I’d be at the table of the business-minded folks, who understand the economic models. Sometimes I would question where the understanding was that we are a community, and that certain people can’t benefit to the exclusion of others, and we’ll all be OK.”

Smith was five months into his appointment as director of RIT’s fledgling Center for Urban Entrepreneurship when Warren unexpectedly defeated Richards in last September’s Democratic primary for mayor. After her win in the November general election, a representative called Smith as he was on his way to Atlanta for Thanksgiving to ask about his interest in becoming commissioner of neighborhood and business development.

“I said, ‘Well, maybe I can give you a few names you can consider other than me,’” he recalls, laughing. “I just wanted to make sure she had the most qualified person in that role.”

Warren called Smith a few days after he returned to Rochester.

“I came in the next day, and she laid it out to me,” Smith says. “To that point in time, I’m thinking there’s no way. With so much going on with the Center for Urban Entrepreneurship and RIT, and trying to get that effort off the ground, I couldn’t see getting off of that track.

“Once I understood what she was trying to do for the city, it hit me that this was a much greater opportunity to make an impact.”

RIT experience
Smith resigned his faculty position on Dec. 31 and reported to City Hall on Jan. 2.

“Del is one of the brightest young people in our community,” RIT president William Destler says. “He’s on leave from RIT, but I want him back.”

Destler became president on July 1, 2007, not long after Smith arrived. The two teamed up for one year as part of the school’s Partnerships in Pluralism diversity networking program and have been friends since.

“Someday we’ll all be working for Del Smith,” Destler says.

Zhi Tang, an associate professor of management at RIT, was a classmate of Smith at the University of Alabama and came to RIT a year before Smith. The two have collaborated on at least four published research papers.

“I think it’s a major transition for him—for anybody in academia, actually,” Tang says. “We’ve been trained with our Ph.D. to be an educator. Then he got tenure at RIT; he was established. Now he needs to give up the job security and higher pay to become a public administrator. That’s a very different role.”

Smith has no illusions about the difficulty of easing the city’s poverty and improving the school district’s low graduation rate.

“I didn’t say it was an easy task,” he says. “I’m a person who likes a challenge, and clearly that’s a challenge.”

Smith claims both Atlanta and Houston as hometowns. He spent his preschool years in Atlanta, moved to Houston until he was 13 years old, then moved back to Atlanta until graduating from high school.

“My dad tried to get stable work,” Smith says. “He was in the construction industry and kind of had to go where the work was.”

Smith enlisted in the military after high school, after becoming a father at 17.

“I had to support the family,” he says.

He spent nearly four years in the Army, working as an information systems analyst on computer systems after scoring well in that area on the Army’s career exam.

“That was a telling moment,” Smith says. “It’s one of those defining points in your life where someone is asking you what you have an interest in, and your answer is going to have a pretty significant impact on the start of your career trajectory.

“That’s why I’m a big advocate for our high schools having programs that provide students with some type of specialized experience, so they can make some kind of determination of what they want to do in life.”

He took classes at three community colleges during his military service and eventually graduated from Faulkner University in Montgomery, Ala., in 2002 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration.

High-tech field
Smith’s first job after the Army was as an information technology consultant in Houston.

“That was a sign that I love technology,” he says, “but I was most interested in how technology could be applied in a business context. Working as a consultant in the IT field allowed me to start to understand aspects about business and not just be a techie.”

Smith was a consultant for the Kelsey Seybold Clinic, Memorial Hermann Health Systems, McKesson Corp. and Realtime IT Support Center from 1997 to 2001 while in Houston.

Then he was called by representatives planning to launch Technetium Group Inc., a wireless technology startup in Birmingham, Ala. He founded the company in 2001 and was its president.

“That’s when I got bit by the entrepreneurial bug, this idea of risk and being involved in something from the ground up,” Smith says. “Being in that role, you had to wear many hats.

“It was a little bit of sales, a little bit of marketing, a little bit of finance and accounting, human resources, all thrown in there. It was from that experience that I really started to have a passion for the total aspect of business.”

He sold his stake in Technetium to company employees in 2003. The company went out of business two years ago, he says.

“I can’t say it was a tremendous success,” he says. “It was my first foray into entrepreneurship. In hindsight, it didn’t bring in a significant amount of revenue.”

Smith’s focus turned back to education. He earned a master’s degree in science and management from Troy State University in Alabama in 2003 and a Ph.D. in management from the University of Alabama in 2007. He intended to become a business professor.

“When I got out on the market, I was this applied guy with IT experience who was all about business with a passion for entrepreneurship,” he says. “The question was, where do I go with that?”

His research directed him to RIT.

“When I looked at the school, it hit on all those things,” Smith says. “It had a technology focus. There was definitely an interest in entrepreneurship.

“I’d never lived up north before. I thought it was an exciting opportunity to come to a place with its history of Kodak and Bausch & Lomb and Xerox and companies I was familiar with, and to see what it was about this city that would be this fertile ground for these companies getting started.”

He has never regretted the move.

“I fell in love with Rochester when I got here,” he says. “I couldn’t really explain it.

“After coming here for the interview, I remember flying back to Atlanta and saying there’s something about Rochester that’s unique. It was the same experience I had when I got bit by the entrepreneurial bug. You can’t really explain it, but it just feels right.”

Smith was intrigued by the city’s potential.

“In a larger city like Atlanta or Houston, there’s already so much going on,” he says. “They’re already clicking on all cylinders. They may have their ups and downs, but for the most part you don’t see as much potential for improvement and opportunity.

“Rochester is one of those cities, in size and potential, where there’s a lot of opportunity to make a difference.”

Smith taught classes in entrepreneurship, leadership and organizational behavior at RIT. His research has focused on the growth of minority-owned businesses.

He was named founding director of the Center for Urban Entrepreneurship in April 2013. It was to have opened last fall in the former Rochester Savings Bank building at 40 Franklin St., but extensive renovations have delayed the launch.

In 2008, Smith founded D.A. Smith & Associates, a human resources and IT consulting business. He sold it to Toronto-based OnX Enterprise Solutions in 2012 and stayed on as president of the newly named FoxWise Technologies USA until the end of last year.

“We had some contracts with the city, so just to keep there from being any conflicts of interest, I sold my remaining shares,” Smith says.

Government post
Ten weeks into his new job, Smith is getting comfortable.

“I’m still very much optimistic,” he says. “My first impression is that within City Hall we have an absolutely fantastic group of individuals who not only are passionate about helping the city be successful but are well-equipped and have the experience and skill set to do that.

“Part of my role is to facilitate that and to create some aspect of strategic direction and common mission that we’re going after.”

That is seldom easy in government.

“Without a doubt, bureaucracy exists,” Smith says. “My role also involves taking my entrepreneurial mindset, my innovative mindset, so when I see an obstacle, I’m still thinking about solutions and how we get around that obstacle.

“We have to think about how we can do things differently. Surprisingly, the resistance to that line of thinking hasn’t been there.”

The department recently completed a two-month review in which it looked at projects, employees and processes to improve efficiency. It has resulted in four priorities:

 Developing a strategic plan for neighborhood and business development;
 Implementing a renewed focus on customer service;
 Developing proactive rather than reactive solutions to issues; and
 Taking advantage of the value of the city’s neighborhood service centers.

“The strategic plan will be what we want to see for our city,” Smith says. “It’ll be what we want to see for our neighborhoods, and what are the objectives and what are some outcome measures that we need to measure ourselves against.

“We’re very interested in a plan for center city. It’s time for a new (plan). Many things have been accomplished, so that’s a great thing. But it’s time to reconvene our developers, our residents, our major stakeholders, and bring them to the table and see what it looks like till 2020.”

Businesses and residents are returning to the city, Smith said.

“When we talk about entertainment, I think we’re in a place now where we can be thinking about some quality-of-life opportunities and business opportunities that could come into the city for all those residents who are buying lofts and living in the city that they would like to see and experience,” he says.

Retail also is becoming a higher priority, particularly at locations such as the Sibley Centre and the new downtown transit center, scheduled to open this year, Smith says. The transit center is likely to include retail activity, and it will change the flow of traffic on Main Street with buses rerouted, potentially clearing the way for retail there.

And there is the Midtown site.

“Midtown is going to be an exciting place a few years from now,” Smith says. “If only half of what is being proposed and what people are trying to do in that space comes to fruition, it’s going to be a place to be.”

Smith expects Midtown to be built out within three years.

“People aren’t on the fence, saying, ‘I’m not sure I want to move on this yet,’” he says. “The individuals we’re talking to are saying, ‘We’ve made a decision that this is where we want to move on our next project.’”

Smith concedes that some people remain wary of Warren’s commitment to economic development.

“I believe, a couple of months into this administration, there’s still some concern there,” he says. “But I do not believe there is reason to be concerned.

“The discussion is more one of, strategically, how do we talk about this in the sense that the things that are happening from a development standpoint have the potential to have a positive impact in our communities?”

Those discussions involve working with businesses and developers to make sure the unemployed and others in distressed areas are qualified for construction and retail jobs that result from development, Smith says.

Off the job
In his spare time, Smith likes to read and play golf.

“Part of the challenge with Rochester, with the weather, is you develop this passion for golf but you have to put the clubs away for a period of time unless you travel to a few places,” he says. “But when the weather turns nice, I’ll be out on the golf course quite a bit.”

He also is two months into writing a book about entrepreneurship, particularly within the minority business community.

Smith lives in Henrietta. He plans to move to Rochester to comply with City Hall’s residency requirements.

Smith is on the board of the Discovery Charter School and the Venture Jobs Foundation. He previously was on the board of the Seneca Park Zoo but had to give that up when he joined the city administration.

“He’s a person who truly thrives on challenges,” Tang says. “It’s not just uncertainties. He loves to be challenged, and he always challenges himself. If he feels too comfortable with something, he will try to find a new challenge. In that regard, I think he will be suitable for this job.”

Smith says he is ready for it.

“I never envisioned myself as being in public service or public administration,” he says. “I consider myself a business guy or an academic guy. So this is a very separate role identity for me.

“I’m still trying to understand the nuances involved in a public administration type of position such as this. You just can’t make decisions based on the bottom line, and it is not theoretical. So it’s exciting to try to maneuver through that space.”

Delmonize Smith
Title: Commissioner of neighborhood and business development, city of Rochester
Age: 37
Home: Henrietta
Education: BBA, Faulkner University, Alabama, 2002; M.S. in management, Troy State University, Alabama, 2003; Ph.D. in management, University of Alabama, 2007
Family: Wife Shunthenia; sons Colby, 20, Trenton, 15, and Isaiah, 15; daughter Jaelyn, 10
Hobbies: Reading, writing, golf
Quote: “I measure the success of me and my role here in terms of getting results and treating people right. That’s what I’m hoping to do here.”

3/14/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


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