July 20, 2007
Place Branding: Rochester, New York
I recently led the first phase of the effort to brand my hometown, Rochester, New York. I’d like to share my thoughts on this ongoing process.
Like it or not – we are branded. Whether intentionally managed or not, brands exist in the minds of people to whom they should matter. I most often hear the following associated with Rochester by people who don’t know the city: snow, Kodak, downsizing, economically struggling Upstate city, long winters. These are not the words or phrases most of us would want associated with Rochester at the top of people’s minds. Take snow for example. Snow is not so bad if you are Colorado or Utah. And, we don’t get nearly as much snow as Buffalo or Syracuse. And, it is great that Bristol Mountain is only a half hour away. But, there may be other associations that are more helpful.
In the online survey I conducted, the following most resonates with residents: “Small town feel, big city culture,” reflecting our plethora of museums, musical concerts, film festivals, etc. but also our (mostly) friendly residents, easy commutes, affordable housing, cozy neighborhoods, etc.
While we will likely never successfully compete with New York and Chicago and San Francisco, I believe we should be able to very successfully compete with Austin, TX, Portland, OR, Columbus, OH, etc.
From the survey, most residents would describe Rochester as being a culturally rich and progressive (but also traditional in some ways) middle sized city with numerous colleges and universities and a highly educated population. They would also say that the quality of life is high with short commutes, affordable housing, attractive neighborhoods and very good school systems (the city itself excepted). Finally, they like the almost unlimited opportunities for day and weekend trips and the close proximity of the Finger Lakes and other rural scenic beauty.
So what is the problem? Very high taxes, which drive jobs away, which in turn drive people away. People like it here. They just can’t find the jobs for which their educations prepared them. Rochester isn’t often in the consideration set when it comes to manufacturing firm relocations. It’s not that we don’t have a skilled workforce or the right colleges and universities feeding the workforce. We do. However, our tax rates, utility costs and freight rates are so high that we aren’t often even in the consideration set.
So, where does that leave us? I believe our future lies in colleges and universities, intellectual capital rich occupations, the creative arts, some very high tech industries, etc., not mainstream manufacturing. Those days are over, maybe not completely, but mostly. It is unlikely that we will ever go back to those days. Our rich water resources may also become all the more valuable.
The good news about our emerging industries is that they are largely non-polluting and typically require highly educated workers. Those are good things.
And we should stop lamenting the loss of Sibley’s and Midtown Plaza. As nice as they were, for all intents and purposes, they are ancient history.
I love it where I live. I have a house in Mendon that backs up to a park. Deer with voracious appetites not withstanding, my yard is an outdoor paradise that backs up to ponds for kayaking, trails for walking or cross-country skiing and beautiful vistas filled with wildlife for visual rejuvenation. But, I would be just as happy in the city in the Park/East Avenue neighborhoods, walking to The Little Theater, 2Vine, The Eastman Theater, the International Jazz Festival, the Memorial Art Gallery, Spot Coffee, one of many sidewalk cafes, etc.
If I were in charge, I would focus on the following:
Adding market rate housing to downtown Rochester as quickly as possible
Transforming the Main/Clinton area that most often forms convention goers’ views of downtown, not to mention those of long time residents that remember Sibley’s and Midtown Plaza
Highlighting our bodies of water. Why not ice skate on the Erie Canal at Schoen Place in Pittsford (rather than going all the way to Ottawa to get the same experience)? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people could take their boats downtown? (I know, extending the Erie Canal there would be very expensive, but what if we took the transportation pot of money earmarked for the Renaissance Center?) We should have a long-term design charrette for the Charlotte/Lake Ontario Beach area, a city treasure. I like that we are extending The Stonehurst Regatta to two days instead of one. I like that I can now ride my bike all the way from Pittsford or Mendon to downtown Rochester (some of it along the canal). (I did it two years ago to visit the Corn Hill Festival.)
Ideating numerous ways to better leverage our wonderful colleges and universities, from retaining/employing more of their graduates, availing ourselves to their cultural offerings, using them to incubate new technologies and new companies and providing a better/richer community environment for their students.
Consider being on the forefront of alternative, renewable energy research and development. It is only a matter of time (and not that much time) before that becomes one of the hottest areas of focus for the US and the world. Why not lead the way? Check out RENEWNY.
Talking more about Rochester’s rich cultural offerings in the context of its small town feel/flavor – “Small town feel, big city culture”
We should be the cultural gateway to the Finger Lakes, an emerging tourist Mecca. What other city can really lay claim to that?
Better leveraging what has to be one of the best musical scenes in the US (Eastman School of Music, Hochstein School of Music and Dance, International Jazz Festival, RPO, Nazareth College’s music department/program, etc.). The Spoleto Festival put Charleston, SC on the map and brings it huge tourist revenues each year. Rochester could do better than that. While we might not want to pigeonhole ourselves as a music city, we have the potential to do so.
Getting over the country club, smugtown, Kodak entitlement approach to life. Those days are over. Take risks. Be entrepreneurial. No one is going to take care of you for life. Create your own opportunities. Create your own companies. Create your own jobs. And, while you are at it, create some for others as well. Pursue your dreams. View failure as a learning experience and move on. And, be positive and optimistic. Create the change you desire in our community and the world.
Last, but not least, lobbying the state government in Albany for major tax reform.
Have you been to Rochester, NY? What are your impressions?