The third-largest city in New York State, Rochester was one of America’s original boomtowns, first in the milling of flour and then as a major hub of manufacturing. The Rochester area has given birth to such famed companies as Eastman Kodak, Bausch & Lomb, Xerox and Western Union. Of the four, however, Kodak filed for bankruptcy in 2012, from which it emerged a year later a much smaller company, while the others relocated their headquarters to other US cities. As the city suffered from corporate downsizing and restructuring, the population fell by one-third from a 1950 high of 330,000 to 210,500 by 2010.
The local economy, however, retains pillars of strength. It is the home of the University of Rochester and Cornell University, the Rochester Institute of Technology and Monroe Community College. As large companies downsized, Rochester and the surrounding Monroe County have seen growth in small, high-tech firms, many of them leveraging the expertise in imaging and photographic technology that is the legacy of Kodak. This progress has not come by accident, but through growing collaboration among local government, educators and business, with support from state and national government.
Collaborating on Progress
The University of Rochester and its medical center are now the area’s largest employer, which attracted US$1.9bn in research grants between 2007 and 2012. That money has fueled local growth beyond the campus. As early as the 1990s, Rochester began building a network of private and nonprofit partnerships to diversify its economy. Organizations like High Tech Rochester and Greater Rochester Enterprise are helping create startups based on University of Rochester technologies.
A recent example of collaboration is the Investing in Manufacturing Communities Partnership, of which Rochester is a part. This has brought nearly US$9m in public-sector grants to the city, which are being invested in remediation of brownfield manufacturing sites, an Innovation Accelerator Foundation and a business accelerator launched by High Tech Rochester. Private investors are also active, having recently funded companies including university spin-outs such as Omnin-ID, Adarza Biosystems and Clerio Vision.
The city aims to leverage that success with investment in broadband. It is seeking state funding to kickstart deployment of a fiber-to-the-premise network while simultaneously researching the opportunity to use the existing city and county fiber as the backbone for a comprehensive network serving government, business and education. The Rochester School District recently won a US$47m grant to expand Wi-Fi to all of its public schools at a state-mandated speed of 100 Mb.
The legacy of manufacturing job losses, however, has left the city a sizable low-income population with poor prospects for participation in the digital global economy. Rochester has more people living at less than half the US Federal poverty level than any other American city of similar size. For that reason, many of the city’s programs target the creation of economic mobility for its poor citizens.
Operation Transform Rochester offers five programs geared toward education, vocation and employment. They target youngsters age 11 to 18 and offer training in basic career skills, leadership, self-development, and social and emotional health. Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH) brings together secondary schools and community colleges to offer a six-year program in information technology that produces an associate degree as well as university credit, and qualifies graduates for entry-level IT jobs.
A program called Kiva Rochester provides small, no-interest, crowdfunded loans to help low-income entrepreneurs start local retail and service businesses. More important than the money is the process: Kiva’s borrowers are vetted by trustee organizations who publicly vouch for their creditworthiness. The city’s Focused Investment Strategy targets four highly distressed neighborhoods for property investment – places riddled with concentrated poverty, elevated rates of crime, tax and mortgage delinquency and distressed housing stock. The investment has gone into demolition, building code enforcement, building improvements, new construction and streetscape beautification. Public investment of US$17m triggered private-sector investment of $89m, which has created hundreds of homes while reducing crime and boosting neighborhood pride.
Determined to bring more of its citizens into the digital economy, Rochester is using the institutions it inherited from a proud industrial past to engineer a brighter future.