Earlier this week, New York State Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle joined The Democrat and Chronicle‘s Editorial Board to discuss the state of the Rochester region’s economy. According to the newspaper’s account of the meeting, Morelle criticized detractors of Albany who accuse state leadership of shortchanging economic support in Rochester when compared to other New York municipalities. While citing a few high-profile examples such as Eastman Business Park and funding from the Regional Economic Development Council, Morelle asserts that the community doesn’t “…talk about our successes” and that allegations of lagging state-based support are “not really the reality.” I challenge both of these conclusions.
First, business news from the Rochester region regularly syndicates its success. When I moved to Rochester in 2007, the Barilla story was repeatedly replayed in news reels and repurposed by local figureheads. More recently, pasta takes a back seat to Eastman Business Park’s cadence of companies’ press releases, which describe how they could generate hundreds of jobs over the next five years. Between last year’s mayoral election and the preceding fight between a neighborhood association and preservationists, Rochester was constantly reminded about the success story of the Genesee Brew House. Even highlights from Vice President Joe Biden’s recent Upstate visit simply reintroduced programs previously announced as part of a September 2013 study released by Monroe Community College (MCC), the Center for Governmental Research (CGR) and the Rochester Business Journal (RBJ) on middle-skill jobs and a related accelerated precision tooling certificate program. These stories and more prove how Rochester is a regular self-promoter of its own success stories.
When it comes to reality, Morelle may also be a bit out of touch. The September 2013 CGR/MCC/RBJ study on middle-skills jobs also surveyed respondents on drivers and barriers for business growth. When specifically asked about state-led policies and economic development programs, 46 percent of overall respondents cited such efforts as a hindrance; among businesses with less than 50 employees, a portrait of more than 80 percent of the Rochester region’s business, 49 percent. In contrast only 19 percent of overall respondents supported Albany-based initiatives. In addition, the September 2013 Metro Monitor, compiled by The Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, placed the Rochester region among the bottom 20 regions in the United States based on rising unemployment and lagging output (gross domestic product).
I do, however, agree with Assemblyman Morelle in one area. The business community and economic development leaders need to find alternative ways to foster growth. Pointing fingers at Albany for uneven assistance across the states’ various municipalities lacks both substance and a mindset fixed on tangible, homegrown solutions. After a while, the Rochester region begins to sound like a petulant child rather than a proactive problem solver.
Instead of targeting Albany, business leaders must better articulate the distinct challenges and opportunities within their respective organizations and industries. For example, I’ve heard of local bankers whose clients don’t understand their own balance sheets. Some businesses lack focus on growing the top line as well as the bottom line. Others lack a meaningful culture to attract talent and foster an environment designed for innovation, efficiency and growth. Lastly, I’ve spoken with several business leaders who believe Rochester is simply risk-averse. As one local influencer commented to me, “Rochester is afraid to be great.”
Elected officials like Mr. Morelle need to improve their response to the concerns of local business owners. Meanwhile, businesses need to invest less time lobbying the bureaucrats in Albany and focus more energy on the inherent opportunities they can immediately influence or control. These changes would require both parties to step outside the comfort zone of their usual messaging. Unfortunately, that’s a version of reality, which may never come to pass.