Government can not grow an economy—only private enterprise can do that in our market-driven system. The role of the public sector is to facilitate and guide private sector development by creating a fair and functional business environment and by removing obstacles to growth. Governor Spitzer’s promise of $50 million for the demolition of Midtown would remove a very significant obstacle to Rochester’s development. The private sector had reached an impasse on this complex problem. With market rents per square foot in the low double digits, neither renovation nor demolition made financial sense. For a less significant property, the buildings might properly have been padlocked and allowed to slowly decay until some change in circumstance presented a solution that did not require taxpayers to foot the bill. Midtown Plaza, however, is rightly “too big to fail,” a property so large and so central that it holds downtown’s future hostage.
I am reminded, however, of what $50 million might otherwise buy—better early childhood or after school programs, new research facilities at UR or RIT, a different redevelopment project, perhaps lower taxes. Frankly, I can’t do the math. I’d not have supported state tax dollars for PAETEC Park, but some of my soccer-loving friends would disagree. What about the $66 million for the O’Rourke Bridge (so expensive because it still opens occasionally for tall vessels)? Certainly we would like a more effective community process to make these decisions. The secrecy surrounding this announcement only enforces how poorly the process works. But this is an imperfect world. The Governor has made an offer that lets us think anew about downtown. Let’s make the most of the opportunity.
Let’s encourage Bob Duffy and Maggie Brooks to think about the Midtown and Renaissance Square projects together and, including the Sibley complex, recapture the center city as the community’s meeting place, turning loose the entrepreneurial zest of our many creative and committed property developers. This may be the time to revisit the scope of the Ren Square project and allow it to move forward. The performing arts component is still seriously short of funds, a problem not likely to be solved for us by the state in the wake of the Midtown announcement. Announced renovations at Nazareth College Arts Center and the Eastman Theater have addressed, albeit imperfectly, the needs of some of the arts community. Perhaps it is time to explore whether renovations at another existing venue, the Auditorium Theatre, might address the gap to be filled at Ren Square.
Let’s hope we don’t face years of inaction as political forces in both major parties attempt to prevent the other from scoring points for “their” projects, the “Republican” Ren Square and the “Democratic” Midtown Plaza. We have an historic opportunity for the entire community to come together to write a new chapter in Rochester’s history book. There have been many successes in the downtown in the past decade—together, these two initiatives will reinforce those successes and unleash the economic potential of the center city.