To help track the impact of downtown’s ongoing evolution, the RBJ asked three stakeholders for comments. Monday: Sharon Napier, founder and partner at Partners + Napier. Today: Sergio Esteban, CEO of LaBella Associates. Wednesday: Christopher Mannelli, executive director of Geva Theatre.
How would you characterize the changes you’ve seen to downtown Rochester over the last five years?
We have always talked about the importance of downtown for the Rochester community, but we weren’t focused on what specifically was needed to make it more vibrant and attractive for people to live here. The development of new housing projects targeting different age groups has contributed to the growth in population downtown like never before.
What’s more, over the last five years, we have come to realize that there is no “silver bullet” to make downtown the attractive and sustainable place we all want. However, more focused public-private planning efforts have produced good results, such as the redevelopment of a portion of the Inner Loop, with new buildings going up, and transformational projects like the expansion and redevelopment of The Strong National Museum of Play and adjacent projects. Other housing projects have been completed or are under way, bringing more people to live downtown. Another important planning effort is the definition of the “Roc The Riverway.” It is imperative now that the projects identified under that plan become a reality in order to maintain the current downtown population.
As the downtown population has grown over the last several years, have you felt an impact on your organization?
LaBella is one of Rochester’s largest employers, with more than four hundred employees downtown. Having exciting projects in development helps us recruit new hires, as do amenities like new restaurant choices, affordable parking, and safe and vibrant neighborhoods to walk in. Visitors and clients have noticed the changes that have taken place, and that feeds into the optimism we feel in our company about downtown’s future. The number of employees living here has increased over the last five years, along with their activities and entertainment after hours. More needs to be done in this area, but we have felt an upward trend.
What is something downtown Rochester doesn’t currently have that it could use?
Downtown Rochester needs to be, locally and regionally, a destination. In other words, we want it to be a place for businesses to move their operations to, a place that people want to live, and a place for conventions and visitors to frequent. There is not “one thing” that is going to produce these results and it is not going to happen overnight. More transformational projects are needed, such as full implementation of Roc The Riverway; the improvement and expansion of the Convention Center and adjacent properties; and, yes, a new performing arts center; along with completion of the redevelopment of the Inner Loop, among other plans. These efforts will draw more people to move and live downtown, to visit our city, and to establish their business here. Also, in conjunction with all of this, it is a top priority to address and solve the problems of the city schools. Ambitious? Yes. Impossible? No. What would help? City, county and state officials working together to put in place a real plan to make it happen.