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, 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.
To leverage that success, Rochester has begun investing in broadband. The city established a contract with Fibertech to run conduit that the city would own and could use or lease according to its ordinances. The contract focused on minimizing street cuts and splicing fiber into Rochester’s existing cable backbone to reduce installation costs. As of August 2019, 21 out of 24 city facilities specified in the contract have been successfully connected.
Training the Future Workforce
Beginning in 2015, the City of Rochester Department of Recreation and Youth Services has created two programs for training youth in future employment skills. The first, aimed at youth ages 14 to 20, is the Youth Employment Training program. The program teaches leadership, conflict resolution, team-building and decision-making skills, as well as providing resume consultation and development, interview skills development and job placement assistance. Graduates from the training program can then take their new skills to the second program, the Summer of Opportunity Program.
The Summer of Opportunity Program provides summer work experiences or vocational exploration opportunities for Rochester youth who are still in high school. The first part of the program is for younger students, ages 14 to 15, and provides them with summer career exploration and work training experiences at local private and non-profit companies. Youth trainees also receive 8 hours of life skills training, including financial literacy, professionalism, leadership and health education. After finishing this tier of the program, youth ages 16 to 20 can progress to the second tier, where they take “youth worker” positions in the public sector or with a local non-profit employer. These positions pay minimum wage and offer 20-35 hours per week of work for 7 to 8 weeks over the summer, allowing students to gain real work experience before moving on to post-secondary education or the workforce.
Rochester’s City School District is taking steps to integrate broadband access and technologies in the classroom and even in students’ homes. By the end of December 2019 all high school students will have assigned Chromebooks to use at school and at home. To complement this Chromebook initiative, the school district has partnered with the 1 Million Foundation to provide free mobile internet access to all high school students in need.
Creating a Center for Innovation
To help local entrepreneurs get off the ground no matter their circumstances, Rochester has created a Business Innovation Center on the fourth floor of its Central Library. The Business Innovation Center staff are trained in business research and offer their consulting services for free to the public. Staff members also provide one-on-one coaching and research interviews for clients, as well as free training sessions through partnerships with SCORE and the SUNTY Brockport Small Business Centers. Topics include how to market a business, filing taxes and managing human resources. The Business Innovation Center employs an Intellectual Property Librarian as well who regularly assists entrepreneurs with patent and trademark research.
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.
The Rochester Environmental Job Training Program (REJob) is a federally funded program for underemployed and unemployed City residents. The eight-week program provides life skills, remedial education training and opportunities for long-term employment in the areas of asbestos abatement, hazardous waste site cleanup and general construction fields. REJob also provides training certifications needed for such jobs. High achieving graduating students may also be offered additional training in related fields, including lead and mold abatement.
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.
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