From Company Town to Town of Companies: Rochester, NY as Case Study for Mid-Sized City Transformation
The mid-sized city transformation is underway. We see it every day in Fremont: new downtown amenities, the resurgence of manufacturing, a nimbleness that nurtures innovation within city hall and throughout the business community. This same transformation is taking place with America’s “original” mid-sized cities: Akron, Allentown, and notably, Rochester, NY – host of a CityAge program last week examining the new urban economy.
The “Rochester Rebound” is an interesting case study. With a population of 210,000, Rochester is slightly smaller than Fremont, however it used to be much larger. At its peak in 1950 when Kodak, Xerox, and Bausch & Lomb were some of the biggest names in business, over 300,000 people called Rochester home. While all of these companies still have a presence in Rochester, it has shed its company town image and shifted its focus to building a more diverse array of manufacturing and technology businesses. For example, the former Kodak campus, is now Eastman Business Park and houses 64 different companies, including Kodak Inc.
Rochester benefits from its beautiful setting in the Finger Lakes region, and a legacy of corporate and educational investments. It boasts a strong university presence (University of Rochester and RIT) and the Eastman School of Music provides a cultural anchor with a 3,000 seat theater and music library. The challenges are significant too. Rochester has a staggering poverty rate of 33%* – among the highest in the top 75 major metropolitan areas in the nation, and a downtown that was abandoned for the suburbs like so many other U.S. boomtowns.
But Rochester has come back swinging, receiving significant support from the State of New York and embracing an innovation agenda. Empire State Development Corporation CEO, Howard Zemsky talked about “Place Based Investment” to counter half-hazard strategies of the past that promoted sprawl and scattered infrastructure. But no longer. Density and equity are key themes moving forward.
New York State knows that they’ve lost a generation of manufacturing workers and will need to invest heavily in education and training to reverse that trend. Author Antoine van Agtmael, who previewed his latest “Smartest Cities” book on TSVE, provided an optimistic prediction that income equality will look much better in ten years. “Demographically, we’ve turned the corner,” he said.
And while innovation themes focused on big data and transportation, there were some lively examples surrounding art and retail as innovation drivers. Case in point, “Retailent Rochester” an upstart effort to revitalize the historic St. Paul Quarter. The strategy started with a community “pub crawl” to generate ideas, followed by Shark Tank-style entrepreneurial pitches, and ultimately a panel-vetted winner who will receive one year of free rent and professional services. As a result, you will soon be able to visit Split Batch Brewery (part coffee house, part brew pub) which exactly matches the community’s desired outcome.
But perhaps the most important sign that things are looking up in Rochester is a steaming pile of doggie doo. Rochester Downtown Development Corps President Heidi Zimmerman-Meyer recently stepped into such a mess and declared victory. Yes, the millennials have arrived with dogs in tow, and no further endorsement is needed that Rochester has arrived.