Community Education Series: PART 1
Over ten thousand residents call downtown Rochester home, but they have no voice in a major upcoming decision – the creation of a Business Improvement District. The city is selling the BID as a way to make downtown more attractive to businesses and tourists through special taxes on property owners. They are saying a BID’s board would decide how to spend those dollars on things like special events, flowers, and decorative trash cans and could employ downtown ambassadors to be friendly faces for visitors …
But what aren’t they saying?
Well, it turns out, quite a lot. There’s a dark side to all of this, and it matters to the future of downtown and the entire city. The Rochester Downtown Development Corporation (RDDC) and the Partnership for Downtown Rochester (PDR), in conjunction with the City, County, and State government, Individuals in influential roles across both private and government sectors, essentially steered resources in a way that benefited their own interests, not the public at large.
The establishment of a special taxing district, controlled by the city’s elite, raises significant concerns regarding fair representation, potential conflicts of interest, and lack of adherence to the principles of due process. In the coming posts we will be delving into the details on how Rochester got to this point, why its a bad deal for the community, and more importantly how we can get out of this mess before it’s too late.
BACKGROUND: THE BID FOR DOWNTOWN ROC
This isn’t the first time a BID was attempted in Downtown Rochester. A previous effort to create a BID in 2014 made it to City Council where it ‘died in committee.’ Former City Council member Carolee Conklin has cited the need for the city to control taxation and land use for rejecting the effort.
Just four years later the Roc the Riverway Vision Plan was released. Then-mayor Lovely Warren had launched Roc the Riverway as a way to obtain state and federal dollars for riverway projects. One of the results of this effort was the suggestion for a management entity. It should be noted:
- The ‘ROC the Riverway’ management board was predominantly composed of big business, economic development, and real estate interests.
- The stacked board concluded that a management entity was needed to program events in new Roc the Riverway spaces, creating a public reason to relaunch a downtown BID effort.
- This 2020 Management Entity Study only studied Business Improvement Districts as models. Alternatives, like modifying or expanding existing city services were not properly considered or investigated.
THE ROCHESTER DOWNTOWN DEVELOPMENT CORPORATION (RDDC)
The Rochester Downtown Development Corporation’s mission is to ‘aggressively advocate on issues impacting downtown investment and growth’ for its dues-paying members — corporations, institutions, and real estate firms in downtown Rochester. Their priority? The economy and capital investment. Unlike many non-profits that aim to broadly benefit communities, their agenda is laser-focused: to develop downtown in ways that boost spending specifically in support of their member businesses.
Rochester’s Future: decided for, not with, its people
Roc the Riverway and the Management study set the stage for the BID. In December 2021, behind closed doors, the RDDC executive committee and staff, together with City, County, and State leadership, re-organized the entity that would become the Rochester Downtown Partnership, (later the Partnership for Downtown (PDR)), with the explicit goal of establishing a Business Improvement District.
In January 2022, the RDDC, which was an integral part of Roc the Riverway, sent out a job posting for a new President/CEO. The majority of the job description centered on their guidance of the creation of a new Business Improvement District.
Then came legislation to City Council in July 2022 to allow the PDR to formally begin the BID creation process. The legislation was soft-pedaled to the community implying the first step was just a study. Advocates, who only recently became aware of the BID initiative, quickly spotted troubling issues.
“Looking at the notes from RDDC, what is actually being proposed to city council is the initiation of the process for implementing a business improvement district. So they’ve already moved past the research. And they’re not necessarily even looking for community feedback,”Amanda Chestnut, Arts & Community Advocate (July 18, 2022)
Their concern was that once the legislation passed, the focus would shift from questioning the need for a BID to debating its specifics, and that the community had been excluded from the process. In news coverage of the growing controversy over the potential Downtown BID Mayor Evans insisted that the BID was “not a fait accompli”. City Council President Miguel Melendez stated “the public needs to understand that this is really an exploration…legislation is authorizing us to study this, and whether or not we want to pursue it”. Both elected officials represent the city on the PDR board of directors, which met regularly.
Despite clear signs of public unawareness including direct polling of downtown residents, and over 800 petition signatures raising concerns about a BID, Council passed the legislation with a 6-3 vote in August 2022, insisting they “never had to vote yes again” if the RDDC’s BID plans didn’t serve the community.
After they cast their votes Council mandated the RDDC to conduct robust community engagement, declaring that without it, the potential BID would not be approved.
It was later learned the RDDC, likely certain of its passage, had already hired BID Planning consultants prior to Council approval…
Tune in tomorrow as we tread deeper into this Riverway Ruse.