Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Raising Funds for the Renaissance

$36 million. Supposedly that is all that is needed to be raised from private sources in order to have all of the funding for Renaissance Square in place. At first glance that may seem like a lot of dough, especially in this era of economic stagnation. But in a region with large numbers of very wealthy individuals and the administrative and/or operational headquarters for numerous multinational corporations, raising $36 million should be a cake walk. As a downtown-area resident and worker, I couldn't be more excited for construction to get going on what will become the largest development project in the history of downtown.

This week, both the
Democrat & Chronicle and WHAM-TV have run stories on Renaissance Square. The D&C points out that there will likely be a separate but coordinated effort to develop a mid-sized theater for use by Garth Fagan Dance and possibly the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. It is unknown exactly where this theater will be built. Most believe that the surface parking lot kitty-corner across Main Street from the Eastman Theater is the best site. But at least one developer has proposed a mid-rise apartment building on that site and, in general, that is a prime site for a private development project. Others, including myself, have called for the mid-sized theater to be built at Midtown Plaza where the McCurdy Building now stands. The theater could serve as a catalyst for the redevelopment of Midtown, which is in desperate need of such a spark. Either way, this new theater will be another significant addition to our Center City. It is expected that Moshe Safdie will be retained to design this facility to provide continuity between it and Renaissance Square. The project is estimated to need roughly $40-50 million in private funds to supplement yet-to-be-obtained public funds. I have no doubt that this community is more than up to the challenge of raising these funds.

The D&C hints that it will be difficult to raise these funds by calling it "massive" and "one of the largest efforts in county history." WHAM-TV too seems skeptical and decided to ask one of the project's leading detractors her thoughts. Louise Slaughter, whom I consider to be a great Congressperson, has been against Renaissance Square since its first incarnation as Rochester Central Station (a.k.a., the Bill Nojay Palace). Have her thoughts changed since then? Absolutely not. "I think the county is really buying into something that will eat them alive, because they're going to be responsible for the operating costs of it," she said. WHAM added that she "worries that Renaissance Square will "sink" like the ferry enterprise." With all due respect Madam Congresswoman, you supported the ferry project with millions of taxpayer dollars so you really have no business making such a comparison. Maybe it's possible that her lack of support is a good sign for this project, after all, Bill Nojay was against the ferry but is a big supporter of Renaissance Square.

Regardless, the timing is right to get the private fund-raising effort off the ground. The economy is turning around locally, businesses are embarking on major expansions, and there are thousands of job openings in the area. I have heard from anonymous sources that there have already been multi-million dollar private commitments to Renaissance Square. Hopefully we will learn who these generous benefactors are when the fund-raising effort holds its public kickoff. If you think this community will not be able to raise these funds, consider this: the Schuster Performing Arts Center (see picture below) in downtown Dayton, OH was built with more than $40 million in private donations. Dayton is a smaller and less economically prosperous city than Rochester; if they can raise $40+, we can raise $80 million without a doubt.

Construction is supposedly set for Spring 2007, although the first round of demolition (the Mortimer Street Garage) is likely to get underway this Fall. Renaissance Square will rid downtown of its ugliest block of real estate and replace it with a Moshe Safdie-designed architectural masterpiece. The iron wall of idling RTS buses will be relocated to the new central bus station, creating a much more walkable (and retail-friendly) Main Street. The new MCC campus will solidify this important post-secondary institution's presence in downtown and is rumored to be attracting considerable interest from out-of-town real estate developers keen on building student housing nearby. There may be some question marks about this project, but the benefits to our City and region more than outweigh the potential problems. We'll see the detailed renderings next month, and hopefully many of us will loosen up the purse strings and help support this incredibly beneficial development project.