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Business Improvement District could help revitalize downtown Rochester | On Business

Business Improvement District could help revitalize downtown Rochester | On Business

Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce is in full support of the establishment of a Business Improvement District (BID) in downtown Rochester. I have been involved in a series of meetings on this project over the last several months, and fully support both the need for a Business Improvement District and the process which is being utilized to accomplish this.

Great credit goes to Rochester Downtown Development Corporation (RDDC) President and CEO Galin Brooks and her board of directors, led by Steve Dubnik from the Strong Museum of Play, as well as Joe Stefko from ROC2025, for their tireless efforts to get this project off the ground.

(Editor’s note: Bob Duffy is a member of the board of directors of the Partnership for Downtown Rochester, a public-private collaboration between New York State, Empire State Development, the City of Rochester, RDDC, and ROC2025.)

Business improvement districts are not a new concept. The first BID was established in Toronto in 1970, and the first in the U.S. was established in New Orleans in 1974. They were initially conceived as a response to disinvestment in downtown areas, and since the 1970s have gained increasing popularity. Today, there are over 70 business improvement districts in New York City alone, and several exist throughout upstate New York, including Buffalo, Syracuse, Canandaigua and Geneva.

As their primary goal, business improvement districts allow for the mobilization of efforts to strengthen downtown areas and create more activities and opportunities for people that live, work, and play downtown. In doing so, they collaborate with both city and county leadership. They are not so much of an independent entity as a partner with local governments, residents, and businesses, all working to enhance the entire downtown district.

In Rochester, our downtown is a shared neighborhood for everyone. While it experienced its heyday in past decades, the downtown landscape has undergone a series of changes and transformations since the 1980s, leading us to the necessity of the current BID initiative. The downtown that lingers in memories of the past is not coming back. The new downtown of the future will be different, but I believe it will be filled with excitement and opportunities to showcase our great city and region.

I sincerely appreciate the support that the BID has received so far from Mayor Malik Evans, City Council President Miguel Melendez, and an array of downtown business leaders, property owners and residents who have played a pivotal role in bringing us to this point. A significant factor driving downtown’s transformation has been a blend of public and private investments. The state allocated approximately $55 million to demolish the old, nearly vacant Midtown Plaza, paving the way for the development of Tower 280 and Parcel 5. This complex has continued to grow year after year, serving as a testament to the positive impact of strategic investment in our downtown area. Gallina Development purchased the Xerox Tower and transformed what was once an empty and outdated building into Innovation Square. This revitalized space radiates energy, innovation, and offers a glimpse into the future of downtown work and living.

The ROC the Riverway project has emerged as a guiding force behind numerous ongoing projects throughout downtown. I had the honor of co-chairing this initiative with former MCC President Anne Kress. A variety of projects are currently underway, stretching from downtown’s riverfront to Broad Street and beyond. These projects are collectively contributing to the creation of a future downtown Rochester that is nothing short of stunning.

Among these endeavors, the Roc City Skate Park stands out. When this project was initially discussed, it faced a lukewarm response from many individuals on the board and panels. I give great credit to local artist Shawn Dunwoody, who was a consistent voice about the need for the Skate Park, which has turned into an unquestionable success. I pass by the Skate Park multiple times each week, and it is consistently bustling with young people. They’re forging connections and showcasing their impressive skills on the various paths, loops, and obstacles within the park. The Skate Park stands as a tangible testament to the ability of a project to unite a community rather than divide it.

These are just a few of the successes we have seen, including the transformations along the waterfront and relaunch of the Riverie tour boat at Corn Hill, which are also part of the ROC the Riverway initiative. We are seeing a transformational change before our very eyes, which serves to reinforce that the time has come for the establishment of a Business Improvement District.

The process so far has been open and welcoming for all to participate. I personally attended meetings both in person and via Zoom that have requested input from any city residents about their vision for the future of downtown and their views of how a Business Improvement District could enhance that. There has been no lack of solicitation of public input on this. If people choose not to participate, they should not complain later. It is impossible to personally ask every person in the city to weigh in, but there have been ample opportunities in the media, social media, and through a variety of other channels that have been focused on eliciting responses and reactions. Again, I give great credit to Galin Brooks and her team for leading this public comment process, which has been invaluable.

One question that has arisen pertains to the funding of BIDs. BIDs function within distinct geographical areas and are formed when the majority of property owners in that area elect to pitch in and share resources to create new programs and services that their fellow property owners or stakeholders desire, especially in communities where local governments cannot consistently fund these efforts. There is, in essence, a tax within the district that people will pay into, and their investment can be easily judged on the results that they see every month and year going forward. The types of efforts that their investments will fund would be clarified through the BID leadership and be focused on attracting more people and investment to downtown, which can only create an environment for more growth and prosperity.

One effort that has been proposed involves reintroducing downtown ambassadors — individuals hired to walk throughout downtown and provide guidance to visitors. It is a positive step forward to help visitors navigate the many attractions and restaurants in the downtown area, especially during festival season, and the investment is relatively small. They would not be police officers but would have communication abilities to report any concerns or issues that citizens may have. While some may oppose this idea, I believe it is a great idea and an important first step.

I would also propose bringing back more police officers walking beats downtown, especially during times of large crowds, festivals and events. That presence has changed over the last several years due to a number of reasons, but if we’re serious about downtown growth and development, it has to come back into the conversation, and hopefully in partnership with City Hall, can be eventually accomplished. I have always felt that there are no greater ambassadors than the officers on their horses at the corners of downtown and how they engaged residents and especially children daily. It was heartwarming to see, but they also serve as a deterrent for the types of behaviors that tend to scare people away from downtown.

While crime remains a concern throughout the region, downtown crime statistics have consistently ranked among the lowest in the city of Rochester. Nevertheless, it is the perception of crime that often dissuades individuals from visiting, investing in or attending events. We must address both reality and perception. A combination of downtown ambassadors and other safety measures would significantly enhance the sense of security and prove to be a valuable enhancement moving forward.

Downtown is the heart of our city, a shared neighborhood that leaves a lasting impression on all who visit Rochester. Whether they’re flying in for business, a meeting, a tournament, or various other activities, most visitors will find their way downtown. It signifies so much about us as a community, what they see and how they feel when they arrive here.

While some may question its importance, let me emphasize: it truly matters. A negative experience for visitors could ripple through conversations with friends, family, and colleagues, potentially affecting decisions to invest, relocate, or even choose to make Rochester their home. Our reputation shapes our future, and our future hinges heavily on that reputation, often formed by brief encounters.

The PGA Championship was recently held at Rochester’s Oak Hill Country Club, and we had an array of PGA officials, players, and visitors come to Rochester and spend time not only at the tournament but also in our city. There were many positives from that visit, but there are also some negatives and challenges which we must face and address. Among these were the perception of safety, and the lack of activities for people visiting and staying in the heart of downtown. The establishment of the Business Improvement District will be a big step forward to address both of these issues.

Our mission is clear: seize every chance to invest in, enhance, and revitalize our downtown area, restoring the sense of excitement and magnetism that old downtown Rochester had. Our vision is a new, vibrant downtown, brimming with festivals, concerts, coffee shops and gathering spots that make it the region’s bustling hub. Just consider the impact of events like the Rochester International Jazz Festival and Fringe Festival — drawing crowds year after year to savor the ambiance and entertainment that they provide. Let’s keep that excitement going year-round with how downtown looks, and how events are programmed throughout the year.

A BID aligns with our aspirations for downtown Rochester. It’s about creating a space that showcases our city’s strengths, welcomes visitors, and attracts new opportunities. When people come to Rochester, their first impression matters. Let’s work together to make it a lasting and positive one.

Robert J. Duffy is president and CEO of Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce. Contact him at [email protected].