People want to live where they work and work where they live. Millennials, in particular, want to be able to walk or bike to work every day and hang out somewhere in between.
Which makes the fact that since 2014, 1.65 million square feet of commercial space has been removed from Rochester’s downtown market for conversion to housing even more compelling. As Rochester continues its downtown revitalization efforts, more businesses are occupying city office spaces and more people are occupying its new residences. Some 7,000 people live downtown, Rochester Downtown Development Corp. reports, and another 3,000 are expected to occupy downtown residential property in the next three to four years.
“First and foremost, I think people are excited about working in a downtown location. It helps from a recruiting standpoint. It helps from an employee morale standpoint,” says John Dobbins, chief network officer for Windstream Corp.’s Rochester operations. “There’s a vibe about it. We’re closer to the local colleges, we’re closer to local talent.”
RDDC reports that the rise of the Downtown Innovation Zone offers a new market for downtown space—technology-based and creative class tenants. The organization is now tracking 138 innovation and creative class enterprises in the downtown area.
“I spent a lot of time on the west coast with the Googles and the Facebooks of the world and they’re very vibrant atmospheres, open spaces, and that’s what exists in a lot of these spaces that have been created in these downtown locations,” Dobbins says.
Windstream, formerly Paetec Holding Corp., has some 750 staffers at two downtown locations, including the Seneca Building on Clinton Avenue and at the former Earthlink building at Alexander Park. New restaurants and planned amenities downtown have helped lure people to the company, Dobbins notes.
“If you think about a younger workforce in a technology company, they’re less likely to want to be in a cul de sac in Victor,” Dobbins says. “You want to work in a place where there’s a lot to do before, during and after work and I think more of that is starting to happen.”
Excellus BlueCross BlueShield has more than 1,300 people at its downtown location, and Sue Eliaszewskyj, the company’s vice president of administrative services, agrees that downtown’s vibrancy is beneficial both for staffers and the company.
“Downtown is the center of the community that we serve,” Eliaszewskyj says. “It offers our employees cultural activities with summer outdoor events. It has a nice park environment where we are. There’s growing restaurant opportunities.”
Eliaszewskyj, who is active with RDDC, has been with Excellus since 1975 and thus been through a number of downtown moves. In 1999, the company chose to stay downtown, investing $37 million in its current location on Court Street.
“As a company, we could have gone anywhere we wanted. We chose to stay downtown because of what it offers,” says Jim Redmond, Excellus’ regional vice president of communications, noting that in 1998 Excellus purchased the naming rights to the community’s War Memorial. “It’s one of those things that as a company we believe in a vibrant downtown.”
So enamored with downtown Rochester’s landscape was Fisher Associates, that the engineering company recently chose to relocate its headquarters to 180 Charlotte Street.
“Rochester is going through a renaissance and Fisher Associates is proud to be a part of it,” company CEO Rosann Schmid said in a news conference last month. “Great things are happening in this city and we now have a front-row seat.”
Schmid echoed other employers’ thoughts when she said the younger generation prefers to be in the city.
“They prefer to live and work in the city,” she said at the company’s downtown opening event. “We felt to be an attractive employer we needed to be in the middle of it all.”
Five Star Bank President and CEO Martin Birmingham agrees.
“In downtown Rochester there are various aspects of revitalization that are occurring and frankly, we wanted to take advantage of that opportunity to be part of that process,” Birmingham says. “It’s been very positive for us.”
In 2016, Five Star, a subsidiary of Financial Institutions Inc., joined the downtown skyline as it moved its regional administrative center to 100 Chestnut St. The bank now has 150 people at Five Star Bank Plaza.
“We went from a suburban office park in a building where we were at capacity and it was cramped space and it probably was a lot more tired than the space that we’ve completely renovated here,” Birmingham says of the move downtown and its benefits to employees. “We transformed the daily work environment to be newer, more positive, more exciting.”
Birmingham notes that because the bank is a local community bank, it is headquartered locally, with the concentration of its workforce, and a significant market opportunity, in Rochester.
“This was a big move for us,” Birmingham says. “We hope the community appreciates the decision we made, because for us, we are living and working in the communities that we are serving. We are very energized and excited by our opportunities.”
He acknowledged that while staffers were thinking hard about how a move from the suburbs to downtown might affect them, they seem to have embraced the move.
“It’s an exciting place to work out of,” Birmingham says. “There are things going on in terms of the vibrancy of our city, be it lunchtime with street vendors or restaurants and the opportunity there, downtown entertainment. And the fact that this is the center of our commerce and industry and the center of our community. We’re glad to be in the thick of it.”
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