From coffins to buttons to electrical appliances, the products that once drove the Flower City’s economic engine had at their core a manufacturing component. A leisurely stroll or Sunday drive through Rochester a millennia ago might have found you looking upon Archer Manufacturing Co., which sold its dental and barber chairs all over the world, or James Palmer’s Sons, which was the world’s leading manufacturer of “pyrotechnics,” or fireworks, in the late 19th century.
But those products and industries have long since fallen by the wayside, and in their place a number of small and medium-sized startups in myriad industries have cropped up.
“We used to talk about a regional economy as being driven by a few industrial ‘pillars,’ either large individual companies or clusters of firms centered around something common, perhaps a labor or product market or a key resource,” said Kent Gardner, chief economist for the Center for Governmental Research Inc. “Rochester’s early growth was driven by the abundant water power on the Genesee River as it made its way to Lake Ontario. We also benefited from what we call “transshipment points”: The lake and the river; then the lake, the river and the canal; then the lake, the river and the railroads that followed the path of the canal. The flour milling business was based on wheat coming to Rochester from surrounding farms and from Midwestern farms and being milled before being shipped to markets further east.”
But the Flour City, as Rochester was known during those days, no longer exists, Gardner said.
“Revolutions in transportation and communication have disrupted the whole notion of a supply chain,” he contends. “Sure, there remain advantages in having a supplier in the same town, but overnight of two-day shipping within the U.S. is far cheaper than it used to be. Air freight from China takes six to eight days. And the cost of communicating with suppliers anywhere in the world has dropped to near zero.”
The industries currently driving Rochester’s economy are education-based, technology-based and food- and beverage-based, some area experts say. And those will be the industries that shape the region’s future.
“I think we’re pretty much aware that the Kodaks and the Xeroxes and the Bausch & Lombs of the world are not going to be our savior going forward, but the good news is we’re still seeing a lot of people that were gainfully employed at those companies who are now doing their own things,” said Jan Pisanczyn, director of the SUNY College at Brockport Small Business Development Center. “I think small businesses really are going to carry the day.”
Greater Rochester Enterprise Inc. President and CEO Matt Hurlbutt noted that 97 percent of employees in the region are at firms that employ 100 or fewer staffers. He doesn’t expect that to change anytime soon, but he does see growth in certain sectors.
“We’ve seen some major expansions in the food and beverage industry,” Hurlbutt said of current trends, noting also that the sector is led by technology. “The fact that we’ve got water really supports the food and beverage industry growth.”
Smaller companies in photonics, imaging, advanced manufacturing, medical device and information technology also have experienced growth of late, Hurlbutt noted.
“We look at where AIM Photonics may lead us with the research and development that they’ll be doing here for optics, photonics and imaging; the advancements in data science; the relationship between imaging, sensing,” he added. “I think we’re going to be a leading area for that and you’ll see continued advancements in sensing technology, the ability to calculate things quickly and process information, as well as advance the technology for food production.”
“You’re going to see a lot of activity, especially on the technology end because clearly that’s a big forte in the area here. Ten years from now it’s going to be pretty heavy on the technology side,” he said. “It helps that the government is helping to promote a lot of this stuff.”
The key to Rochester’s future, Gardner said, is “that set of assets that make this a great place to live.”
And with the region’s plethora of incubators and development programs, tech-savvy entrepreneurs have plenty of opportunities to get together, network, congregate and bounce ideas off each other to spawn new technologies, Pisanczyn added.
Rochester’s small businesses will be the wave of the future, he said, because “we’ve got to start somewhere, and that’s where it all begins.”
“Kodak will be loved, and certainly Xerox and Bausch & Lomb,” Pisanczyn said. “But the up-and-comers will be the stuff that’s just now starting to get their seeds planted.”
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