Riverway Ruse: Who Really Has a Seat at “the Table”?

Community Education Series: PART 3

While city officials and Rochester Downtown Development Corporation members paint the Business Improvement District (BID) as a way to enhance downtown Rochester’s appeal, calls for community to “come to the table” are insincere. The RDDC’s community feedback methods are not designed to discuss genuine community needs or alternative solutions, but to justify their backroom decision to create a BID.

While the BID effort has been underway for over a decade in boardrooms, the public still remains largely uninformed of the effort. In one of the earliest public mentions of a BID, former Rochester Mayor and Police Chief turned Lobbyist, Bob Duffy not only sung the praises of bringing back the “redshirts” patrols downtown, he also stated that the BID was “moving rapidly towards approval” back in February of 2022.

“Rochester Downtown Development Corporation is leading this effort with the City of Rochester, New York State, ROC2025, and other partners, and is moving rapidly toward the approval of an entity that will help to oversee activities and growth of downtown.”

– Bob Duffy (February 2022)

It should be noted that Duffy earns $220,000/year to serve on the board of Avangrid, the multinational company who owns RG&E. According to city data RG&E owns at least 10 parcels of land within the district. The undemocratic weighted voting system would give RG&E more voting power than other parcel owners. Residents do not get a vote.

While large corporations, as well as city, county and state agencies were not only aware of the plan but helping to fund the project – the general public was not included. This has not been a transparent process! If BIDs are ‘such a great thing’ for communities, why did they keep it under wraps for so long?

BTW, Advocates went to the table…

When arts advocates first found out about the BID effort and the concerning community issues that follow, they proactively reached out to the mayor, City Council the RDDC, and even Andy Gallina, to protect the community’s best interests. Among other concerns, they clearly stated:

  • the need for community education about such a major change to Downtown, as well as open and impartial public discussions about true needs in the community.
  • that formal legislation shouldn’t start without the community having basic awareness. How could the community consent, or even advocate if they didn’t know what was happening?
  • that the BID formation process was crafted to establish a BID, not to determine if the community actually desired one.
  • that BIDs were responsible for the displacement of small businesses and Black and Brown residents in other communities, documented by academic research.

Advocate concerns were disregarded. Emails to the mayor went unanswered. Only after City Council allowed the first step in BID formation to move forward were invitations extended to “come to the table”. After the Mayor and City Council officially set the legislation is in motion, the only option to preserve our community’s options is to stand firm against it.

Building a Movement

Undaunted by this early setback, advocates understood the potential losses for Rochester if downtown became a Business Improvement District. This coalition, initially rooted in the arts community, has grown rapidly to include social justice advocates, union members, small business owners, renters, property owners, and even some developers who recognize how a BID will further shift power dynamics in favor of the few.

Because a BID raises concerns spanning taxes, living costs, fairness, and justice the “NO BID” movement has brought together diverse Rochesterians who might not usually be aligned. No one wants to play a rigged game!

Once the BID is ‘off the table’ the community can have fair discussions about needs and priorities for the future of Rochester. The RDDC and other BID backers have been unreasonable. They have had over a decade to build community consensus and chose not to do so. They were not anticipating opposition, as most communities are unaware that a BID effort is even underway until the very end.

It is important for the community to stay connected as our fight for fairness continues, be sure to join the mailing list to stay in the loop.

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