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How do you feel about downtown Rochester?

Most poll respondents think significant downtown development in Rochester is unlikely.
Patrick Ashley
via Flickr
Most poll respondents think significant downtown development in Rochester is unlikely.

Here's the question:

How much confidence do you have that there will be significant development in downtown Rochester within the next five years?

So now think about your response to that question (and feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments).

Got it? Now let's see if you're in the majority.

Not optimistic

If you said "not all that confident," you're on the winning team. 

An independent polling firm posed that question to 500 likely Monroe County voters. It's one question among many from the 2011 Voice of the Voter poll. (Every year a handful of Rochester media outlets team up to take the pulse of the local community.)

57 percent of respondents expressed little confidence about the future of downtown. The most popular answer was "not too much" confidence, filled in by a full 42 percent.

Heidi Zimmer-Meyer is the president of the Rochester Downtown Development Corporation. She chalks up the negative response to one thing in particular:

The PAETEC effect.

Zimmer-Meyer says the level of disappointment among likely Monroe County voters is understandable - given that what was billed as the anchor of future development is probably not going to happen.

"They put a lot of hopes on that one thing to help turn things around," Zimmer-Meyer says of PAETEC. "And now that it's going away, people are afraid the whole thing's going to cave in."

Zimmer-Meyer thinks collapse is unlikely. She points out that there's $660 million of downtown development currently in the pipeline - even without PAETEC.

"[PAETEC] is not the only thing that's happening downtown by a wide mile," says Zimmer-Meyer. "But it's something that captured the imagination of the public in a very exciting way."

She thinks the public is coming to terms with a dream deflated.

Downtown turnaround

Zimmer-Meyer says she understands the voter disappointment, but she says there's actually reason for optimism.

Almost $200 million of that $660 million in downtown development is new housing, according to Zimmer-Meyer. She says downtown is undergoing a residential transformation - with nine more housing projects underway that could bring in up to 1,100 people. 

Recent Census data shows strong growth in the center city. While the city of Rochester's population shrunk by 4.3 percent over the last decade, the downtown area was one of the region's bright spots - population grew by 11.5 percent.

Perhaps (un)surprisingly, city residents were far more optimistic than suburbanites about the future of downtown. Just 7.5 percent of suburban respondents expressed a "great deal" of confidence in downtown development. That's compared to 21.6 percent for city-dwellers.

What's next?

Zimmer-Meyer says "it'll take a while" for another PAETEC project to come along. ("I think it was unusual that they were there in the first place," Zimmer-Meyer says.)

Still, she thinks things are trending in the right direction: Earthlink is expanding significantly at the corner of Alexander and Monroe, the LEED-certified Monroe County Crime Lab recently opened, a litigation support services firm recently moved its 100 employees downtown and there's even a new microbrewery.

"Does it mean we're out of the woods in terms of seeing the kind of downtown that most of us want?" Zimmer-Meyer asks. "No. We have a ways to go, and we know that. But we also know that we have a tremendous base to build on and that base is growing."

WXXI/Finger Lakes reporter for the Innovation Trail.
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