New multimedia studio opens in Sibley Square

A new multimedia production studio has opened on the third floor of Sibley Square.

EXP Studio bills itself as a community-based studio, agency and learning center that provides a locale “for creatives, techies, gamers, social media influencers and entrepreneurs to build on their passions, network, learn and push their creativity forward.”

The studio caters to artists, content creators, techies, gamers, photographers, videographers, dancers, musicians and a variety of aspiring entrepreneurs.

EXP said the goal is to provide readily available and affordable opportunities and resources to creatives, enabling them to grow their ideas in a supportive, motivational environment.

Visit the organization’s website for more information.

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Construction begins on kitchen incubator in Sibley Square

City, state and federal officials held a ceremony Thursday afternoon to mark the start of construction on the Commissary Downtown Kitchen Incubator in Sibley Square. The incubator kitchen is expected to open in the spring.

The former Sibley’s department store will lend 6,500 square feet for the food business incubator located on the first floor and include a commercial kitchen that startup food businesses can rent as an alternative to creating their own costly kitchens.  It will also house a demonstration kitchen for food performances, events and cooking classes.

The Commissary will feature a performance kitchen like this rendering. (Illustration provided by The Commissary.)
The Commissary will feature a performance kitchen like this rendering. (Illustration provided by The Commissary)

“The Commissary will create a powerful safety net where food businesses can be tested and successfully launched, said Heidi Zimmer-Meyer, president of Rochester Downtown Development Corp., which will oversee the kitchen.

Already, more than 150 businesses have inquired about using or renting the facilities.

The $2 million project has received funding from New York’s Empire State Development, WinnCompanies, the City of Rochester and a federal grant.

“WinnCompanies is thrilled to welcome the Commissary Kitchen Incubator to Sibley Square. Strong partnerships with the business community and state and city officials continue to advance the revitalization of downtown Rochester,” said Gilbert Winn, CEO of WinnCompanies, the owner of Sibley Square.

U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, who worked to secure a nearly $1 million federal grant for the project, said in a statement, “The Commissary Kitchen Incubator is Rochester’s recipe to serve up major economic development, new businesses, and 100 new jobs while creating a destination to bring visitors, diners and more to revitalize downtown.  I can’t wait to see, visit, and taste, what aspiring food entrepreneurs cook up once construction is complete.”

The ceremony was followed by a ticketed, celebratory event with more than 30 food businesses sharing their creations.

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Retail business arising in new forms downtown

Where Rochester’s downtown once featured four department stores and two grocery stores, now there are none.

A quarter century after the last department store closed, in the places where all of Rochester once shopped, there’s a car museum, a large gravel lot and a stately building with papered-over windows.

The old five-and-dime is now a Social Security office, and there appears to be just one clothing store in all of downtown, offering sportswear for young men.

Retail has been on hiatus for some time downtown. Downtown experts say it’s never coming back the way it was, but there are some encouraging signs of new and different retail life:

  • This week’s Rochester Cocktail Revival.
  • This is the second year for both Rochester Restaurant Week and Roc Holiday Village.
  • Construction will begin in the fall on two projects in Sibley Square. One is the kitchen commissary, a food-business incubator run by Rochester Downtown Development, and the other is a food hall riffing on the success of places like North Market in Columbus, Ohio, and ethnic markets in New York City.
  • Late last year Rochester Institute of Technology opened a downtown art gallery.
  • Sibley Square is shopping around the idea for a new full-service grocery market on the ground floor, along the lines of the now-closed Hart’s, but about half the size.
  • Amid the high-tech startups and empty nesters flocking to downtown to live in luxury apartments, there’s also a growing number of eateries and devoted followings of two major festivals that bring in international headliners — the Jazz Fest and Fringe Fest.

In terms of traditional retail, you can still buy a few things downtown, such as fashionable kicks, comic books, art supplies and high-end furniture. For essentials, though, you probably have to go elsewhere.

Ken Greene
Ken Greene

“Do they sell handbags or cables? The answer is no,” said Ken Greene, asset manager at Sibley Square, the mixed-use project being redeveloped from the former Sibley’s department store.

Nevertheless, it is possible to buy any number of brewed coffee drinks, upscale meals, casual meals, vegetarian meals, craft beer and specialty cocktails, suggesting a shift away from material purchases and more toward experiential service retail.

“We see our retail becoming more service-driven for the community,” Greene said, noting the return of banks — with or without staff physically present — and the planned addition of urgent care.

“I think food and beverage is going to be part of the answer and you need a critical mass for that,” said Heidi Zimmer-Meyer, president of the Rochester Downtown Development Corp. Indeed, downtown Rochester’s population is about 7,200 now, double what it was in 2000.

So the restaurants that have been popping up around downtown are serving both an urban working crowd and an urban residential crowd.

The once-popular notion that retail stores will start to return from the suburbs once we hit a certain number of downtown residents, however, is a notion that has gone the way of the, well, department store.

A little thing like the “Amazonification” of retail happened since retail left downtown. That includes sales moving onto the internet, not to mention an entire industry that arose in the last few years to bring consumers whatever they need from brick-and-mortar stores.

You don’t need those stores near you if you have apps like Uber or Shipt or GrubHub or InstaCart.

Heidi Zimmer-Meyer
Heidi Zimmer-Meyer

“On-street, brick-and-mortar operations are not likely to come back,” said Zimmer-Meyer.

People are voting with their feet, however, that they do want to be ON the bricks — whether it’s the Jazz Fest, Midtown Eats or a winter village that was a huge hit at holiday time the last two Decembers.

“In this community it seems to me that we tend to do things in short spurts. We love festivals. Look at Roc Holiday Village,” Zimmer-Meyer said. “They had food and beverage and retail sales… people went nuts.”

Jenna Manetta-Knauf, owner of Bella Events and originator of the Roc Holiday Village, said she got the idea from New York City’s Bryant Park, which has ice skating in the winter and a series of pop-up shops and eateries in the holiday season.

The local event featured 20 retailers offering things from hand-made soap to funky furry hats. Food, drinks, music and ice-skating all encouraged people to hang out and do their holiday shopping, and groups could rent heated igloos to hold their own parties.

Manetta-Knauf said sales exceeded expectations, with vendors telling her they experienced the highest number of sales in their business’s history.

“It was crazy,” she said.

Events like that are shaping how people shop, Zimmer-Meyer said.

“It’s an experience, all about the experience. That’s one of the things we’ve heard continually about the whole national debate about retail,” Zimmer-Meyer said.

Pop-up retail is becoming more popular in Rochester too. Earlier this year Sibley Square hosted a pop-up vintage furniture sale that did well, Greene said.

Manetta-Knauf manages the Wilder Room in the former Rochester Club and that space was booked for a pop-up women’s fashion retail event.

Designers use their social media following to advertise an event and then set up shop, perhaps with a bar, other refreshments and music, in an event space. The Wilder Room isn’t the only one designers have used for pop-up sales.

“Once or twice a year they pop up in different spots and people go and buy their stuff,” Manetta-Knauf said.

While these pop-ups and festivals are all part of the evolving retail picture, Zimmer-Meyer said Rochester could use a coordinating organization to make sure they keep happening, she said.

She noted the vibrant winter scene Ottawa enjoys, where the community celebrates its frigid temperatures.

“This is what I want Rochester to be all the time,” she said. Downtown Rochester draws crowds during events like the Jazz Fest, she said, but there isn’t much residual effect. “The festival ends and everyone goes home,” she said.

Greene suggested downtown is going through an evolution of sorts that is dependent on both numbers and demographics of new residents and daytime occupants.

“As downtown continues to grow, you’ll start to see hair salons and nail salons. You’ll start to see drycleaners, more daycares. There will be service-related retail,” he said.

When Sibley’s leased space to Monroe Community College, Rainbow, a discount clothing store, was a good fit for community college students. But now that MCC has its own downtown campus and Sibley’s is adding 280 apartments, a more upscale store to serve the new residents is in order, Greene suggested.

Similarly, bodegas have sprung up downtown to accommodate tens of thousands of bus riders who come through the RTS transit station downtown. There are three in a two-block stretch of North Clinton Avenue, Greene said. As the population of downtown residents increases, those residents will need a more expansive food market, he said.

“There are just so many obstacles to successful retailers in downtown Rochester,” Greene said. One is parking — Rochester-area residents still want to park within three rows of a store, like at a mall. Then there’s a shopping nostalgia, which he described as “A psychological barrier in trying to recreate the retail experience of the past.”

People do hanker for the past, Zimmer-Meyer said, at least in terms of finding a central place to inhabit together.

“With everybody doing stuff online, and operating so individually, there is a human need to come together,” she said. “We love coming together for special things. For special reasons. We’ve got to look at what’s happening in other cities that are doing a far better job” of that year-round.

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Planned Commissary in Sibley Square gets $983,000 grant

The Rochester Commissary, a planned incubator for food businesses, Thursday got word of a $982,800 federal grant that will help make the project possible.

Sibley Square, home of the Rochester Commissary
Sibley Square, home of the Rochester Commissary

The grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce is to be used to renovate part of the former Sibley’s department store into a commercial kitchen that will be shared by culinary entrepreneurs. The idea is to help startups establish themselves more quickly by avoiding the cost of creating their own commercial kitchens. Members of the incubator will rent space in the kitchen and have access to entrepreneurial workshops, too.

“We look forward to seeing how the new Rochester Commissary food incubator facility will support growth of the agribusiness, food processing and technology cluster in the Genesee/Finger Lakes Region,” said Dennis Alvord, U.S. deputy assistant secretary for regional affairs.

The plan is to renovate 5,648 square feet on the main level of Sibley Square into 14 kitchen stations, a show kitchen, and shared storage for dry and cold goods. The commissary, estimated to cost $1.6 million, is slated to open later this year.

Both New York senators cheered the funding.

“I was proud to help secure this much-needed federal … funding for Rochester’s first-ever food business incubator here in the Sibley Building, and can’t wait to see – and taste – what aspiring food entrepreneurs cook up once construction is complete. Now that this vital funding is secured, it’s time for Rochester’s first Commissary Incubator to get cooking! This exciting effort will create 100 jobs and provide workspace for countless Rochester food entrepreneurs who will soon be creating even more jobs in the local economy,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer.

Added Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, “This grant is fantastic news for the Rochester food scene and for the redevelopment of the historic Sibley Building. A newly renovated commercial kitchen will allow local restaurant businesses and foodies alike to participate in The Commissary Downtown Kitchen Incubator’s innovative food startup lab.”

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