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Galin Brooks: From fascination to facilitation as a lifelong development expert

Galin Brooks
Galin Brooks, the new president of the Rochester Downtown Development Corp. (RDDC).  (Photo by Lauren Petracca)

She had completed her degree in political science and economics from University College Dublin in Ireland in 2004 and headed to the Boston area to put that knowledge to work.

But it didn’t take all that long for Galin Brooks to realize she had maybe missed her calling. There was always an allure, an intrigue, to the urban environment, and when she did volunteer work alongside a city planner in the greater Boston area, she recognized there might be an opportunity to effect change every day.

So back to school she went, earning a master’s degree in urban planning from New York University’s Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service in 2010.

Now, a dozen years later, Brooks has come to Rochester, overseeing the continued advancement and enhancement of downtown as the new president and CEO of the Rochester Downtown Development Corp. (RDDC).

“In terms of what I’m interested in, what excites me and my priorities day-to-day and personally, it seems to be a really cool fit,” Brooks said. “There’s lots of rich history, interesting infrastructure, great bones as a city, lots of historic fabric, beautiful buildings, walkable, treed neighborhoods. I’m excited.”

Brooks, a 38-year-old native New Yorker, took the reins in late June, replacing Heidi Zimmer-Meyer, who retired after 37 years with the RDDC, including the past 18 as president.

“This is really a long-term, strategic hire coming on the heels of how long and how impactful Heidi was in that position,” said Chris Hill, the RDDC board chair. “Galin is a real rising star.”

Brooks split the past nine years working on planning, infrastructure and parks initiatives for two business improvement districts (BIDs) in Washington, D.C. Before that she worked for Hudson River Park Trust in Manhattan.

Thus, it makes perfect sense for her to lead efforts to energize downtown even more in a city intent on the revitalization of the Genesee River through ROC the Riverway.

“The riverfront resurgence is something that’s been happening in cities across the country for a while,” Brooks said. “It’s a vision to connect the communities to their waterfronts, to the river that is here, that belongs to the people of Rochester but for so long hasn’t been accessible, hasn’t been knit into the surrounding area in a way that invites people in.

“It’s a really incredible resource for the people of Rochester. So, to be acknowledging that and responding to it and facilitating it through the creation of this new infrastructure and a network of public spaces that will draw people to their waterfront is just fabulous.”

Brooks grew up downstate, living in New York City and Westchester County before her family moved to Dublin when she was 11. Along the way, she began to develop an interest in the urban landscape.

“Even as a kid,” she said, “the contrast of the settings was very apparent to me, and as I grew up, I appreciated — I think in a unique way — how much the built environment affects your daily experience, your connection to opportunity, your ability to move around efficiently, your connection to your community, there are all these things that the built environment can affect, depending how it’s set up.

“I had an appreciation of that at a young age, and I also had a fascination of it at a young age.”

Fascination has since transformed to facilitation. As director of planning and placemaking for the DowntownDC BID, Brooks focused on parks projects, transportation projects and public realm projects. One major project was the rehabilitation of Franklin Park, a five-acre plot in the heart of Washington, D.C.

Through collaboration with the National Park Service (which owned the property) and the District of Columbia, the DowntownDC oversaw revitalization of the park.

“Franklin Park is an example of where a BID was able to step in and help to provide private sector resources to have a well-maintained park space day-to-day that’s activated and well-utilized and well-loved by the broader community,” Brooks said.

She also worked a great deal with the District Department of Transportation on a variety of projects, related mostly to active transportation, so bus, bus priority, bike, bike lanes, pedestrian safety.

D.C.’s loss is Rochester’s gain, her current and former employers say.

“When Galin came to me and said she was taking the job in Rochester, I said, ‘I’m really happy for you but I’m not so happy for myself,’ ” said Gerry Widdicombe, director of economic development for DowntownDC. “She left us in good shape, though.

“She understands the issues — like transportation, affordable housing, climate change — and she’s good at balancing economic development issues and social issues. She’s a collaborative person, she’s a curious person and she’s a data driven person.”

Brooks said her most important trait right now is an ability to play a sponge.

“Because I am so new, I’m very focused on learning and listening and working to gain a deeper and richer understanding of the history and complexities of this area, the current context, the sensitivities, all of that,” she said. “I’m definitely on a several-month listening tour because I am new here.”

The RDDC board was impressed with what Brooks can bring to Rochester.

“We really had some amazing candidates but her experience with revitalizing, with activating programming, was impressive,” Hill said. “What really stood out is that a lot of the attributes with Washington, D.C., were similar to Rochester, except on a bit of a larger scale. To be able to bring that level of big-city experience and exposure was very important.”

The RDDC’s mission is to drive the economic vitality of downtown. That, in turn, powers the Greater Rochester area.

“Downtowns are the engine of their region,” Brooks said. “There’s a lot of access to opportunity that downtowns can provide. They’re the most centralized place typically for people to get to in terms of equitable access to jobs. They tend to have the greatest density, so they’re more efficient, so the return on investment for cities is higher in terms of the amount of money that a city spends in a downtown versus the amount of tax revenue that a city typically gets out of a downtown, which it can then use for services it provides throughout a city.”

But no one person or entity can determine what’s best for a downtown, in the present or in the future.

“Downtown belongs to everyone,” Brooks said. “Everyone accesses different resources and amenities and activities in a downtown, and a humming, thriving downtown should be providing more to a broader cross-section of the population.

“We need to set a community-informed vision for what downtown can and wants to be. I have a million ideas about a million things that could happen, but this work must be community informed and is only successful if it is community informed.”

There are theories that can provide a guideline to design. In the “15-minute city,” the basic needs can be reached within a 15-minute walk. The Power of 10, a concept espoused by the Project for Public Spaces, says a great place needs 10 things to do and/or reasons to be there.

“The idea is you want to have multiple things for people to do in a spot,” Brooks said. “You want to have a store that sells soft goods, you want to have a funky bench to sit on, you want to have pretty plants to look at, maybe there’s a street performer, maybe there’s a sidewalk sale at a bookstore. You want to have 10 options for people to choose from to keep people in a place and fulfill their experience.”

From what Brooks already has seen, the options in Rochester are endless.

“When I look at downtown Rochester, I see so much potential and so much opportunity,” she said. “There are these incredible catalytic moves that have been put in place — ROC the Riverway, the removal that’s begun of the Inner Loop, what’s going on with Strong Museum — a lot of smart, strategic investments that have the potential to create a really special, unique, thriving, inclusive part of the region.”

[email protected]/(585) 653-4020


Galin Brooks

Title: President and CEO of the Rochester Downtown Development Corp.

Age: 38.

Education: B.S. in political science and economics from University College Dublin in 2004, master’s in urban planning from New York University’s Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service in 2010.

Residence: Rochester.

Family: Husband, Matt; one son.

Hobbies: Kayaking, hiking, camping and travel.

Quote: “In any planning process, there has to be community engagement and input and ideation and feedback. There has to be research and understanding and review of comparable case studies and best practices. It’s never one person making something happen, it’s always a lot of different people and entities and groups that have to collaborate, and to support them in a way that needs to happen for them to be successful.”

Longtime RDDC president to retire

Heidi Zimmer-Meyer
Heidi Zimmer-Meyer

Longtime Rochester Downtown Development Corp. leader Heidi Zimmer-Meyer will retire at the end of the year, the organization said Monday afternoon.

“This has been an exhilarating ride,” Zimmer-Meyer said in a statement. “Here we are in 2021 with a thriving downtown innovation zone, vibrant arts and culture, bustling vertical neighborhoods and a growing hub for foodies and nightlife. When we get beyond COVID-19, downtown will explode with activity. There is massive pent-up demand to come together as a community again.”

Zimmer-Meyer has been with the nonprofit organization for nearly four decades, the last 18 of which were at the helm.

“Significant leadership changes are never easy, but Heidi is handing over a stronger organization at a time when downtown’s momentum is really accelerating,” said RDDC Chairman Chris Hill. “So much is in motion — the Inner Loop East developments, Innovation Square, Aqueduct District, Sibley Square, Neighborhood of Play, ROC the Riverway and 16 housing projects — just unbelievable.”

Under Zimmer-Meyer’s leadership, RDDC built the Commissary in the Sibley Square building, the first food business incubator and shared kitchen in the region and the only one of its kind in Upstate New York. She created and operated a second corporation, Downtown Special Services Inc., which for 15 years ran the Downtown Guides, Red Shirts program and Downtown Information Center.

Zimmer-Meyer led the creation of the Cypher, a downtown youth arts center that ran for three years and offered an afterschool alternative to the streets. During her tenure at RDDC, downtown grew from 1,575 residents to more than 8,500, 60 buildings were converted to housing and 24 newly constructed housing projects were built, including six currently under construction. Zimmer-Meyer guided RDDC from its original role as a business association to becoming an active economic development entity.

RDDC’s board of directors has appointed a search committee which is managing the recruitment of a new leader in preparation for a seamless transition later this year. Zimmer-Meyer plans to retire on Dec. 31.

[email protected] / 585-653-4021
Follow Velvet Spicer on Twitter: @Velvet_Spicer

Rochester to get new branding

A new effort is underway to build a greater story for the Rochester region.


ROC2025 — an alliance of Greater Rochester Enterprise Inc., Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce Inc., Rochester Downtown Development Corp. and Visit Rochester, as well as the city of Rochester, the State of New York, multiple county officials and higher-education representatives — has launched Greater ROC as a unified brand identity that represents the values of the Rochester region.

Greater ROC is designed to communicate the essence of the region to tourism, business, education, nonprofit, arts and culture, health care and other economic sectors locally and nationwide, officials said.

The initial launch includes a video that will be shown on TV and digital media, as well as a webpage, social media channels, public relations outreach and a toolkit for local organizations and individuals to support and promote the Greater ROC brand.

Joseph Stefko
Joseph Stefko

“The central message of Greater ROC is that Greater Rochester is more than a place and more than geography — and that ‘greater’ is actually what the region and its people are truly made of,” ROC2025 President and CEO Joseph Stefko said in a statement. “The brand embraces the region’s individual strengths to unleash its united potential, tapping the talent, ingenuity and positive energy of Rochester’s many voices, beliefs and experiences. It’s a collective spark that celebrates who, what and where this nine-county region is to ignite a new way forward and a new way of talking about Rochester, and boldly says that this is one region, many strong and made greater by all. It’s galvanizing, empowering, inclusive and about the growth of our community. This new platform boldly asserts — on the local and national stage — that ours is a region on the move.”

The branding was created following months of interviews and opinion gathering with more than 100 community members and leaders representing a broad cross-section of sectors and demographics about how the region identifies itself.

The Greater ROC initiative supports each of the five pillars that form the foundation of ROC2025’s collaborative model: coordinated capacity-building investments in business retention and expansion; talent strategy; business attraction; downtown growth; and regional branding/marketing.

“Developing a unified Greater ROC brand platform enables us to showcase the myriad assets that make the Greater Rochester, New York, region a competitive and attractive place for tourism, talent attraction, business attraction and retention,” GRE President and CEO Matt Hurlbutt said. “Together, we can amplify the highly skilled workforce, world-class universities and cultural arts that make our community a greater place to grow a business and raise a family than any other high-tech hub around the country.”

Greater ROC encompasses Genesee, Livingston, Monroe, Ontario, Orleans, Seneca, Wayne, Wyoming and Yates counties.

“I see great strength in our region’s many voices and economic sectors sharing a single message to promote all of the outstanding features that make Greater Rochester an attractive place to live, work and play,” Rochester Chamber President and CEO Bob Duffy said. “With our laser focus on workforce development and talent attraction, Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce is pleased to partner with stakeholders across the region to share the message that we are, indeed, ‘Greater’ ROC. I encourage the business community to join the effort as we take our region to new heights.”

One of the key inputs heard frequently during the development of Greater ROC was the importance of hearing from and actively seeking the participation of as many voices and points of view as possible, a concept that’s taken on even more importance given recent events — including the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing dialogue about racial inequity — that have put the collective strength of the region and the world to the test, officials said.

“Like Rochester itself, Greater ROC finds inspiration in our rich business and human tapestry, from farms and Main Street businesses of the Finger Lakes to corporations and startups in our urban center to everyday contributions made by people of all ages, colors, creeds and ethnicities,” RDDC President Heidi Zimmer-Meyer said. “Welcoming unique voices and spurring the movement that Greater ROC seeks to inspire will change how this region thinks about itself, and how the rest of the world thinks about Rochester. Greater ROC represents a totally new and different narrative.”

[email protected] / 585-653-4021
Follow Velvet Spicer on Twitter: @Velvet_Spicer

Eat Up Rochester is back for the fall on Wednesday nights

Rochester’s restaurant week last spring was such a success, the Rochester Downtown Development Corp. is scheduling another Eat Up Rochester event for the fall: drinks and appetizer specials during happy hours on Wednesdays.

“Wednesday Night Out” runs from Sept. 12 to Dec. 5, featuring half-price appetizers and drink specials priced at $4 for beer, $5 for wine and $6 for cocktails from 5 to 7 p.m. at participating downtown restaurants.

Some restaurants also include dinner specials, such as Morton’s The Steakhouse’s prix fixe with appetizer, side dish, entrée and dessert for $40. Temple Bar will be offering a beer and a burger for $11.99.

As of this week, 18 pubs and restaurants were participating. A full list, along with information on their respective Wednesday Night Out specials, is available online. The program is part of RDDC’s efforts to encourage nightlife activity downtown.

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Eat Up Rochester is the newest incarnation of a local restaurant week

Rochester Downtown Development Corp. is launching a restaurant week in Rochester next week, hoping to bring more business to the city’s restaurants while encouraging local residents to try something new.

During “Eat Up Rochester,” which runs from Monday through Sunday, participating restaurants will offer special menus hitting previously-agreed-upon price points, such as a $10 lunch, $20 brunch, or dinners for $20, $30 or $40. Some restaurants offer multiple meal menus while others offer just one.

“We hope it celebrates the city of Rochester and all the different neighborhoods,” said Sydney Aspenleiter, marketing and communications coordinator for RDDC.  In its first year, 21 Rochester restaurants are participating. In Buffalo, where a biannual restaurant week has been going on for some time and is happening this week, more than 200 restaurants are included. Buffalo’s event includes restaurants beyond the city limits and deep into Erie and Niagara counties.

Rochester's local restaurant week is April 23-29.
Rochester’s local restaurant week is April 23-29.

In some cases in Rochester, the menus are quite a bargain. Morton’s the Steakhouse, for instance, is offering a four-course $40 dinner featuring either a pork chop, filet mignon, salmon or chicken.  The filet mignon normally sells for more than $40 on its own.

Aspenleiter said some restaurants weren’t familiar with the concept of a restaurant week and didn’t offer such a deep discount. The hope was scheduling the event in April, which is normally a slower month for eating establishments, would pick up business.

Participants can check out the menus online before deciding on where to go for an Eat Up Rochester meal.

Generally there are at least two choices for each category on the menus. For example, City Grill’s Eat Up Rochester menu allows diners to choose one each from a list of four appetizers, four entrees and three desserts. The price is $30 at that restaurant for the three-course dinner.

Morton’s general manager, Brandi Williams, said Morton’s has participated in restaurant weeks in other locations and gained new business. Therefore, it seemed like a good idea to participate in Eat Up Rochester, especially as Morton’s has only been open here since October.

“We find that being so new to the community, this would be a good way to expose ourselves to a variety of different demographics to Rochester,” she said. “It’s a way of marketing ourselves in a different kind of way.”  The special event encourages people to come in when they might not otherwise, and then get wowed, she said.

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Retailers talk urban trends

Shop Peppermint opened at the Culver Road Armory in 2016. (Bennett Loudon)
Shop Peppermint opened at the Culver Road Armory in 2016. (Bennett Loudon)

You can’t use the “build it and they will come” mentality in retail anymore.

That was one of the conclusions of a panel of retail experts who spoke on retail trends at a breakfast presentation organized by Rochester Downtown Development Corp. at the Rochester Riverside Hotel Tuesday morning.

Jaymes Keenan, broker and retail specialist at CBRE Rochester, said retailers ignore online retail —or e-commerce—at their own peril. “Retailers are either embracing it or ignoring it,” he said. “Ones choosing to embrace it are having quite a bit of success right now.”

Three out of four adults in the U.S. bought products online last year, Keenan said. “Amazon is an absolute beast,” and e-commerce in general grew 17 percent in the last year.  But he added that most retailers need to be concerned about both brick-and-mortar and online sales. Even Amazon has made major inroads into physical stores with its purchase of Whole Foods supermarkets and other ventures, Keenan noted.

He noted another trend is the experiential style of shopping that many shoppers, particularly millennials, prefer. He defined that as creating an emotion or lasting impression that carries beyond the actual purchase. “How cool is it to be eating at TRATA or shopping at Peppermint or Arhaus and knowing what these spaces used to be?” he asked.

Tanvi Asher, owner of Shop Peppermint in the Culver Armory that Keenan alluded to, said it’s important to know customers and remain flexible enough to meet their needs. Asher began business as a wholesaler of her unique line of clothing. But when she opened a retail shop to gain more room to create garments, she soon found she had to bring other designers into the mix to satisfy the demand.

Similarly, when Peppermint moved to from Park Avenue to the Culver Road Armory, her business quadrupled and her customer base became older and more suburban. Asher added a gifts line. But she still knows her customers: “Women who like to eat local, drink local, shop local and they like to know where their things come from. Our customers want to how their Instagram experience will translate.”

Fred Rainaldi Jr., the developer of the armory complex, said he’s been pressed to think outside the box to bring in national retailers like West Elm, which specializes in furniture and home decor. Traditional market formulas for density and traffic would have ruled out the armory property, he said. But he dug up additional data, such as 120,000 people driving by the armory every weekday on Interstate 490 that helped bring in name brand national stores. He also found additional lines of revenue for West Elm, such as selling furnishings to businesses and apartment complexes.

“I’m doing their analysis before they set foot in Rochester,” Rainaldi said, using the same market-research firms the larger companies use.

Rainaldi said communities can no longer expect stores will enter a market first. Offices, residences and cultural assets all are part of the picture and are even precursors to retail now, he said. Change can be good, he suggested.

“This natural cleansing we’re seeing in the market is actually quite healthy,” Rainaldi said.

To stay relevant, retailers have to be “ever changing,” added Kathleen Saxby, a retail strategist with Style Integrity Social Collaborations. “Go where your customers are or where you can find them,” she said.

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