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Playing key role in resurgence

Politics is not a bad word for Vincent Esposito, it is just a way to get things done. The director of the Finger Lakes Regional Office of Empire State Development Corp. does not happen to be an elected leader at the moment, but he is still a politician at heart.

“People assume politicians are only elected officials. We’re all politicians in different ways. … Those skills serve me very well in all kinds of situations, whether I ever run for elected office again or not,” the former county legislator, now age 40, says.

For now, it means using his connections to help Rochester and the Finger Lakes region grow economically.

“Obviously in government, you have to have the ability to bring people together and work with people no matter how much you get along with them or agree with them,” he says. “You can’t just look at this as a job. It’s a mission. You’re trying to improve your community.”

Much of Esposito’s day is spent talking or listening to ensure all the parties involved in any given effort are working together.

“There’s a lot of community partners I work with—agencies like Greater Rochester Enterprise and the Rochester Chamber and High-Tech Rochester and Rochester Downtown Development Corp., people at Eastman Business Park—that I talk to almost daily, so that we’re coordinated when we’re trying to put together a company deal,” he says.

The second part of his job is as executive director of the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council, which sets the goals and direction for the area’s growth and development. The strategic plan, now a year old, is called Finger Lakes Forward and sets the bar to measure the success of future initiatives, including an explicit goal to reduce poverty.

“Getting people to believe that there’s a shared vision and pushing in the same direction is the real power. It’s not about which company got however-many million dollars,” he says, even as he acknowledges the importance of money in bringing players to the table.

Whatever bum rap government and politics may get these days, he loves his work and the opportunity Gov. Andrew Cuomo gave him to advance projects like the photonics initiative and a downtown innovation zone, he says.

“I could not have a better job right now in terms of my ability to impact things positively. … It’s a wonderful, wonderful thing, so whether I am honing those (political) skills or using those skills, is all fine by me. People can call me whatever they like,” he says.

Pull of politics
Raised in Fairport by a computer engineer father and his mother, a mathematics teacher, he started his career in computer programming after leaving SUNY College at Geneseo before his senior year. The oldest of four brothers, he was lured into politics by Assemblyman Joseph Morelle, D-Irondequoit., now state Assembly majority leader.

Morelle arranged for Esposito to be hired as a software developer at MMI Technologies Inc., the company Morelle and his brother ran in the early to mid-1990s.

But Morelle’s responsibilities as an assemblyman meant he was often dealing with legislative business on the phone when in Rochester.

Esposito overheard those conversations and one day, as Morelle tells it, Esposito turned to him and said: “I find what you’re doing more interesting than I find software development.”

The rest is history. Esposito went to work for Morelle and eventually ran for the county legislature representing Irondequoit, where he and his wife and daughters continue to live.

“He’s an appealing guy, friendly. He gets back to people,” Morelle says. “It doesn’t hurt that he has movie-star looks.”

Esposito also has a mania for order, and, Morelle says, everyone knows to get out of his way when he starts pulling binders off the shelves and relabeling everything.

“He’s incredibly organized,” Morelle says.

It was while Esposito was serving his second term in the county legislature that Cuomo offered him the job leading the Rochester region’s economic development activities for the state, a role that required him to step down from elected office in 2012.

Esposito has no regrets and remains open to running for office in the future.

“I would never say no to that again. I had a wonderful time representing people in Irondequoit,” he says.

This particular job, however, was the right job at the right time.

“I have great experience in knowing the stakeholders in our region. I have a natural passion, growing up here and intentionally staying here, to see this region succeed. I love Rochester. I really can’t imagine a place where you can have a better quality of life,” he says.

As one of the region’s movers and shakers, Esposito is also one half of a Rochester power couple, married to WHAM-TV morning anchor Jennifer Johnson.

“We have very similar jobs in one respect, and they’re completely different in another, in that we interact with the same people. So she’s covering people who are making news in the community, and I’m often working with those people to make the news,” he says.

Their interest in and commitment to community helped bring them together, and they are regulars at local charity events, which Johnson often emcees.

“He definitely feels this civic duty and a need to give back,” Johnson says of her husband.

In the spotlight
But being in the spotlight took on new meaning after their second child was born.

Baby Grace was born with a hole in her diaphragm and an only partially functioning single lung. She survived despite a variety of medical complications thanks to the doctors at Golisano Children’s Hospital. The couple agreed to share their story on television and went on to raise money for the hospital in Grace’s name, which they continue to do.

“We were very public about sharing her story because we were public people, and that allowed (Grace) to touch a lot of other lives,” Esposito says.

But it also meant when “Amazing Grace” died of her condition at a year and a half, there was no place to hide.

“What we went through is tough,” Johnson says. “We both have jobs where we need to keep it together.”

Giving each other unconditional love and room to grieve became incredibly important. But public awareness of their tragedy also meant they received an outpouring of support from others.

“My wife has it on a whole different level and she’s really incredible in the strength she has. It can be tough, but it is far outweighed by the benefits. So while there may be times when you just want to close the door and have privacy, the amount of love and support in so many ways, we’re just incredibly blessed,” Esposito says.

The experience also made family time something he and his wife cherish.

“We have three daughters; we still say it that way. Avery is 6 and Lucy is 2 and our middle daughter, Grace passed away at a year and a half. She was our angel, our miracle,” he says.

That is how they talk about Grace both publicly and with their daughters, he says.

Esposito’s family, his job, his volunteer work for Golisano Children’s Hospital and involvement in the Kiwanis Club do not leave time for much else. But Esposito and Johnson both trained to run in the Rochester Marathon this September.

“I better do it now or I never will,” he says of turning 40.

The 26.2-mile route took him past his friend Donald Sinton’s home twice, where friends had gathered to taunt him as he passed—hassling one another being a tradition in his circle. Morelle, a member of that circle, considered giving some examples, but thought better of it and sealed his lips.

Esposito is also an excellent golfer, friends say, and impatient with himself if he does not play well.

“He’s his own worst critic,” Sinton says. After a bad shot, Esposito will not ride in the golf cart with the rest of them, Sinton says. “He walks the rest of the hole because he’s so angry at himself.”

It quickly blows over, however.

“When the round is over, he’s back to being good old Vinnie,” Sinton says.

There are a lot of sports Esposito once excelled at that have fallen by the wayside over the years, including baseball and basketball, which he played in college.

“My hobby is really trying to carve out time with my family,” he says.

With his wife rising early in the morning, they often see each other only briefly during the week, making weekends precious, he says.

“If we have a weekend where we don’t have a charity event, that’s rare—and we cherish it. More often than not, we just go to bed early. That’s our life at this point, but it’s wonderful,” Esposito says.

With youngsters still eager to greet him at the door, he has been known to arrive home, find an excuse to step outside and then repeat the joyful homecoming all over again, a trick he learned from a friend.

“I admit I’ve done that before; it’s pretty awesome,” he says. “They’re at the age when they do come running and still hug me, which is wonderful. There’s nothing better.”

Key issues ahead
Asked about his greatest challenges though, he reverts to talking about the city and the Finger Lakes region.

“The biggest challenge, and the most difficult, is truly how we make sure all of the people who live here are participating in this resurgence…There are too many people who are falling behind,” he says.

Reducing poverty requires the active involvement of business leaders and nonprofits, he argues. Economic development initiatives can play a role too. For example, he points to North American Breweries Inc., which, as part of its expansion, has committed to hiring and training people working their way out of poverty. Whether it is the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative or High Tech Rochester Inc., Esposito sees an energy and eagerness for change in the community.

“Rochester is literally being rebuilt in front of us. It’s physically changing, and we have an opportunity to contribute towards that, to make it a better place,” he says. “That is unbelievably exciting for anyone who cares about this community.”

Vincent Esposito
Title: Finger Lakes regional director for Empire State Development Corp., executive director of the Finer Lakes Regional Economic Development Council
Age: 40
Education: Graduated from Fairport High School, attended SUNY College at Geneseo
Family: Wife, Jennifer Johnson, daughters, Avery, 6, Lucy, 2 and Grace, who passed away at one and one-half
Hobbies: Playing golf, serving as honorary co-chairman (with his wife) of the Golisano Children’s Hospital annual gala, spending time with family
Quote: “I could not have a better job right now in terms of my ability to impact things positively. … It’s a wonderful, wonderful thing, so whether I am honing those (political) skills or using those skills, is all fine by me. People can call me whatever they like.”

9/30/2016 (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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