Thursday, April 19, 2007

RIT Teaches Corporate Welfare to Us All

Yesterday's Democrat & Chronicle contained two stories regarding the April meeting of the County of Monroe Industrial Development Agency (COMIDA). One benign story was tucked away in the Business section and detailed expansion plans for local tasty beverage maker Custom Brewcrafters. The expansion will allow CB's to begin bottling their beers for purchase at local stores which, as an alcoholic-in-training, is a great thing. The article also summarized other decisions made by COMIDA at the meeting, including the subsidization of yet another City company's move to the suburbs (Mirror Show Management). Will the City of Rochester be compensated for the poaching of a growing business from within its boundaries? Absolutely not, but I have ranted enough on that topic...for now.

The other, much more touchy story dealt with the approval of $7.9 million in property, mortgage, and sales tax breaks for local retail developer Wilmorite to build the long-discussed Collegetown development on RIT's Henrietta campus. The 60-acre project will consist of 300 apartments for RIT students and 67,000 square feet of retail space, including a large new Barnes & Noble outlet that will double as the main RIT campus bookstore. Rather than take the form of a typical suburban strip mall, the project will appear more like a small urban village with multi-story buildings containing retail on the first floor and apartments above (see rendering below). Sidewalks and green space will add a walkable, livable touch to this project. It's not the project itself that I have a problem with. The project will be great for RIT and its students. But any objective citizen can see that this project is completely unworthy of such lavish tax welfare.
For one thing, retail is not a wealth-generator for a community. As opposed to manufacturing, research & development, health care, and tourism-related investments which bring new money to a community in the form of career-building employment, intellectual expansion, and new residents and visitors, retail development simply serves the existing market. Given that this region as a whole is not growing, Collegetown will more than likely siphon shoppers from other existing retail areas in our community thereby harming the long-term prospects for other areas that will likely require tax breaks of their own in the future to remain competitive. The only form of retail that would merit these tax breaks would be a destination-type retailer, such as an Ikea or a Cabela's, which draws shoppers from outside the immediate marketplace.

If this project were being built on a brownfield or grayfield or as part of a larger revitalization project for the City or a village, it would be getting a big thumbs-up from me. Infill projects such as these are typically much more expensive to build and the tax incentives provide a level playing field between them and their greenfield suburban counterparts. Problem is, this project is a suburban greenfield development. Furthermore, it is an incredibly attractive project for any would-be developer. It rests on a large undeveloped plot of land in a fast-growing suburb along an established high-traffic commercial corridor adjacent to a major research university that is providing a guaranteed tenant base. Given these key indicators, most developers would jump at this opportunity. Monroe County taxpayers should not be subsidizing a wealthy developer's highly-profitable project. It would be built regardless of the extravagant tax incentives being thrown at it. We should be outraged.

Believe it or not though, that's not the worst thing about this irresponsible COMIDA decision. It is this writer's humble opinion that giving tax breaks to Wilmorite is a criminal act. Wilmorite is no stranger to sucking at the government teet. In 2005, Wilmorite received $3.3 million in tax breaks for its highly-successful Mall at Greece Ridge, despite paying less than $100,000 in actual wages. They obtained Empire Zone status for their upscale Eastview Mall property as well, receiving $1.6 million in tax breaks in 2005 despite actually cutting a position there. You see, it is the tenant within the mall that actually creates jobs. With tenants, Wilmorite makes money; without tenants, Wilmorite just abandons their property. They did it with the Irondequoit Mall and they are doing it with the historic Sibley Centre in downtown Rochester.

It is with the Sibley that the question of legality comes into play. In 2002, the Sibley Centre was designated an Empire Zone by the City of Rochester in the hopes that it would encourage investment at the property. Instead, Wilmorite claimed more than a half-million dollars in tax breaks while racking up some $11.5 million in taxes and fees owed to the City of Rochester. While you or I would have our possessions taken from us and our lives destroyed if we were to owe such money to the government, Monroe County is actually throwing money at Wilmorite. How is this allowed in modern society? What happened to Republican morals? At a minimum, would it not have been prudent to attach a caveat to any tax agreement on Collegetown calling for Wilmorite to either pay the City what they owe, or begin reinvesting in the property?

The Sibley is a highly visible building and, along with Midtown, it is the linchpin to any true economic renaissance downtown. The Urban Land Institute has seen the potential of Sibley; it is in a perfect location for a mix of apartments and condos overlooking Liberty Pole Plaza and the entire East End district. With the coming of Renaissance Square, the marketability of the Sibley becomes even greater than it is today. While MCC will move its campus from Sibley to Renaissance Square - this should not be viewed as a negative. It will open up enough space to make a residential conversion feasible. Removal of the bus transfers from Main Street and Liberty Pole Plaza will make the first floor retail much more attractive to would-be shopowners and restaurateurs. Furthermore, there are opportunities to bring the SUNY EOC and Empire State College to Sibley, making up for the loss of MCC as a tenant. Sadly though, COMIDA does not have foresight; they only see the dollar signs placed in front of them. The community is being raped over and over again through this questionable deal. I hope the voters remember this come November, when Maggie Brooks is up for re-election.