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How long will Rochester continue to defeat itself?

We can do better.

I read with great interest earlier this month news reports on a study that identifies Rochester as having the slowest growing economy in the United States. While studies like this often don’t illustrate the entire picture, it comes as no surprise when you look at factors that lead to a stagnant economy.

In my many visits to Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce member companies, I hear stories of unfilled jobs that pay well above minimum wage because our workforce is not qualified to take those available positions. Because of this, Rochester ranks in the top five metro areas in the nation for childhood poverty and top ten in the nation for overall poverty. This is all exacerbated by the fact that the Rochester City School District historically has a graduation rate below 50 percent despite our extraordinary investment in education.

When you look at all of these factors together, we have to ask ourselves, “How did Rochester ever get to this point?”

One observation I have made is that we define “insanity” here. We do the same thing over and over again, expecting different results. We have not seen different results. If anything, in many ways we have regressed. It is time to take a look in the mirror and find ways to do better. We are rife with silos, turf issues and egos that divide us politically, geographically and demographically. We have reached a point where we are on the precipice of some great things happening with the Upstate Revitalization Initiative and AIM Photonics, but we must do some soul searching to take it to that next level.

We are competing against each other at a time when there should be greater collaboration. One way to start that process is to create better alignment here between business, education, community leaders and political leaders. We must get away from a focus on individual success and look at what works for the greater good. My model for this behavior is Danny Wegman. His work with Hillside Work Scholarship Connection, his service as co-chair of the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council, his business sense, and his way of bringing people together are something from which we all can learn.

On the political front, it is time to elevate expectations of our elected officials and hold them to a higher standard. They must listen to feedback from the business community and become actively engaged with business to get our economy back on track. We have already seen in this year’s state budget one way that the state Legislature has thought creatively. Although the minimum wage increase is a negative for business, our legislators found a way to ease the blow somewhat for our area by scaling the increase differently for upstate and downstate. As I wrote in a previous column, this upstate/downstate approach can help in other areas that now burden business, including workers’ compensation and the Scaffold Law.

At a recent meeting of the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce executive committee, our guest, Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative Director Leonard Brock, mentioned that Rochester has one of the highest per capita numbers of not-for-profit organizations in the nation. That piece of information sparked some great conversation in the meeting. We have so many different agencies going in many different directions. We must align and follow the words of Danny Wegman: “focus and finish.” We now lack the type of focus and teamwork we need to improve our economy. Yes, each program has its own constituency and it is painful on many fronts when some programs do not achieve results and face cuts. As a state, we have an addiction to spending. Elected officials do not want to say no to a certain constituency. Anyone who tries to stop funding for something that’s been in place but doesn’t see results will run into a group fighting to keep that funding. We lack the collective courage to say no to what clearly does not
work so that we can say yes to things that do work.

We also have an array of economic development agencies, chambers of commerce, workforce development and other organizations across the nine-county Finger Lakes region that all operate independently. I get the sense that everyone is worried about losing something and therefore we often compete against each other rather than collaborate. If leaders of a company came here seeking to relocate their business, they would have to make several stops at different agencies to gather the information they need. This is not an efficient or effective way to run things. These businesses should have the opportunity to visit all of the agencies they need in one place. I’m not suggesting a merging or consolidation of agencies but rather a co-location under one roof to streamline the process for prospective and current businesses.

We have the power to change things, but do we have the collective courage and the will?

While those in Buffalo are working together to make a comeback, we often fight among each other. We should take a page from the Buffalo comeback book and tear up the page that once labeled us Smugtown in another book years ago.

Rochester should never be the slowest growing economy. Rochester should never be among the leading metros in childhood and overall poverty. Rochester should never have a low-performing school district. This message is not about pointing fingers of blame. It’s about many hands taking collective action to fix the problem. Let’s make Rochester synonymous with prosperity, not poverty.

We can do better. We must do better. We must focus and finish.

Robert J. Duffy is president and CEO of Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce. Contact him at rduffy@GreaterRochesterChamber.com.

5/20/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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