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Home sweet home–but far from perfect

Rochester’s up and comers are vocal champions and big believers in the area. The community’s family-friendly climate makes it easy to stay here, they say.

Still, even optimistic young leaders admit the picture is far from perfect. Poverty, limited opportunities for young professionals and budding entrepreneurs combined with a struggling city school district and a somewhat lackluster downtown make for a challenging environment in which to thrive.

In a recent survey, Forty Under 40 honorees who were recognized over the last 20 years overwhelmingly—132, or 76 percent—picked family as the reason they choose to stay in Rochester. Employment came second, followed by cost of living and education.

A job could take these people away—47 percent picked that as a reason to leave. A handful said warmer climes could tempt them to go.

The survey, sent to all 760 Forty Under 40 alums, asked this question: What are the significant factors why you choose to stay in Rochester? It also asked respondents—59 percent of whom said yes—if there were enough good job opportunities for young professionals.

While past Forty Under 40 honorees are upbeat about the reasons to live in Rochester, including quality of life and the region’s legacy of giving back, they are cognizant of the need to fix big issues. They voiced their concerns about the area remaining an attractive place to live and work in the future.

“Rochester is a wonderful place for so many of us to live, secure an education, work and raise families,” wrote Laura Sadowski, vice president of Al Sigl Foundation at Al Sigl Community of Agencies, who was in the 1995 inaugural class. “It is truly ‘A Tale of Two Cities.’ If only we could find more equitable solutions to the challenges we collectively face as a community, we could all be living more productive and positive lives.”

High taxes, a common answer in similar surveys in years past, were cited as a problem, but poverty, education and better jobs were equally if not more important to tackle for some respondents.

“The state of public education in the city is a significant hindrance to the entire area’s growth and development,” said Randi Minetor, president of Minetor and Co. Inc. and a 1997 honoree. “Losing half of our children in high school not only leaves us without a strong, well-educated future workforce, but it also perpetuates the cycle of poverty and unemployment among the city population. If we could fix education, most of the city’s other issues would be fixed as well.”

Christopher Thomas, a 2002 Forty Under 40 alum, said poverty, education and a favorable business environment are interconnected.

“A great business environment is essential for job creation,” said Thomas, a partner at Nixon Peabody LLP. “It also serves as a significant motivator for educational success, which leads to employment (if good jobs exist).

“Both help to combat and reduce poverty, which is a huge drag on the other two. We should be doing just about everything we can do to improve the business environment, improve the creation of jobs and improve educational outcomes. It’s a gargantuan task, one which won’t be completed in the next few months.”

Forty Under 40 honorees echo the disheartening reports on poverty and graduation rates in the city of Rochester. Recent U.S. Census Bureau poverty statistics, for instance, showed the overall poverty rate for the city was 35.4 percent, up from 31.6 percent the year before and 30.5 percent in 2009.

“The Rochester area has the ZIP code with the highest concentration of poverty in Upstate New York. It also has the ZIP code with the highest concentration of wealth in Upstate New York,” said David Mammano, CEO of NextStepU, who was in the 2005 class.

“How can we leverage our success to win? We are a very generous community, yet poverty and low graduation rates plague our community. Why? We need less talk and more answers/action.”

Leonard Brock, a 2013 Forty Under 40 alum and executive for education initiatives at the Children’s Agenda, believes a poor school system in the city contributes to a weak economic structure for the region as a whole. Furthermore, opportunities for minority groups are limited, he added.

“Greater engagement of young, qualified persons of color in the business community is lacking,” Brock said.

Brock and other persons of color want to participate in economic development, but navigating the system to do more is no simple task:

“I would move from the Rochester area because other locales are more conducive to the advancement of progressive, young persons of color,” he said.

It is not just the lack of diversity that disturbs some young professionals. A dearth of career advancement opportunities limits their progress and their ability to reach positions of influence.

Alex Zapesochny, president at iCardiac Technologies Inc., who was honored in 2010, called the shortage of exciting and high-level career opportunities, especially for younger professionals, the most significant economic or public policy issue the area faces.

Roderick Jones, president and CEO of Grace Hill Settlement House in St. Louis, Mo., takes a tough stance.

“Rochester was great to me, and I still love the place. However, I would advise my friends to leave as there is a structural decline in tier 1 corporations and consequently population and supporting markets,” said Jones, a 2002 honoree who moved out of the area in 2008.

Fostering entrepreneurship and drawing and keeping businesses in Rochester are vital to the area’s health.

“We have to provide the incentives for young people to want to make this their permanent location and getting them engaged,” said Nancy Snyder, partner at the Bonadio Group LLP and a 2003 Forty Under 40 alum.

Joseph Rulison, co-founder and CEO of Three + One Co. LLC, hopes he can do that. Rulison said one of the main reasons his new business started here is that the region churns out plenty of qualified college graduates.

“We want to provide employment opportunities to our new college grads so they can stay locally and not feel that they have to travel across country to pursue an exciting job,” said Rulison, a honoree in the 1995 class.

Taxes and regulation, however, come into play.

“Government regulation and taxes continue to stifle entrepreneurship and private business growth,” said Matthew Hurlbutt, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Greater Rochester Enterprise Inc. and a 2001 honoree.

“The state needs broad-based tax and spending reductions along with mandate relief for local governments to allow New York to be more competitive with others.”

High taxes and slow economic growth could prompt Gary Schwingel, a 2006 Forty Under 40 alum and senior vice president and chief financial officer of Genesee Regional Bank, to move.

Scott Cottier, a vice president and senior portfolio manager at Oppenheimer Funds Inc., shares Schwingel’s sentiment.

“Property tax rates are becoming untenable,” said Cottier, a 2006 honoree. “It will be increasingly difficult to budget for my expected property taxes in retirement. Property taxes may be what ‘forces’ my family out of the Rochester area.”

Much work needs to be done, Forty Under 40 alums agree. Taking action is essential.

“Rochester is a great place to live. We all have to do a better job of promoting all the wonderful things about living here instead of complaining about the weather, taxes, etc.,” said Cheryl Yawman, practice director in accounting and finance at Cochran Cochran & Yale and a 2004 Forty Under 40 alum.

While 2011 alum Erika Duthiers said the area needs to work on enticing businesses and raising the quality of education in the Rochester City School District, she noted her family is thriving in Rochester.

“Both my husband and I enjoy being part of a tight-knit community that is safe, affordable and philanthropic,” said Duthiers, who is originally from the tri-state area. She is deputy general counsel and interim director of institute audit, compliance and advisement at Rochester Institute of Technology.

Only time will tell if Rochester can successfully hold on to its young go-getters and draw more of them here. For now, continuing to rebuild a vibrant downtown, providing opportunities to share ideas and make things happen is a start, in addition to lowering poverty and improving educational outcomes.

“The Rochester community keeps me here quite (simply) because it can. We’ve come a long way in even the last 10 years organically supporting business growth and neighborhood development,” said T.C. Pellett, manager of public relations at Brand Cool and a 2011 Forty Under 40 honoree. “I think the key thing we’ve learned is that people with the new ideas and the creativity for allowing Rochester to evolve need to be free to do so.

“We’ve shed a somewhat generational negativity that nothing good can happen here, and it needs to continue.”

11/14/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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