Rochester Ambassador Program reignites conversations on Business Improvement District

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — The City of Rochester is expected to pilot an ambassador program in the coming months.

The program hopes to bring a handful of friendly faces downtown, guiding residents, workers and visitors to restaurants, coffee shops, and things to do.

Monroe County’s Industrial Development Agency has pledged $300,000 – half of the program’s expected budget – to help kick things off.

“There’s so much going on in Rochester, it’s exciting,” Bob Duffy, the president of the Chamber of Commerce, said. “So the BID and the ambassador program are just two more adjuncts to support it.”

The BID doesn’t technically exist yet. A year out from when the city last considered it, it’s still in the planning stages. A BID is a private organization – typically a nonprofit – that’s given government approval to tax businesses in a certain area. The BID works in tandem with the municipality – in this case, the City of Rochester – who then processes the tax.

That money is then spent by the BID on private projects to increase the economic vitality of an area. Brooks is president of the Rochester Downtown Development Corporation, another nonprofit that is leading the charge for both a Business Improvement District and the ambassador program.

The projects can range from new benches to event series to hanging flower baskets – whatever the BID believes would benefit the area. These decisions would come under regular annual review by City Council, Brooks says.

“[The Chamber of Commerce has] almost 1,300 members,” Duffy said. “Not one of our members has ever reached out and said I don’t like this idea. I think people feel is a very positive step forward, and we’re going in the right direction.”

But not everyone’s on board. The BID Education Committee – a grassroots organization of people who live in and around downtown Rochester – have several concerns.

“BIDS are designed to increase property values,” organizer Kelly Cheatle said. “Increasing property values may sound great on the surface, but they can also have negative impacts.”

One such impact that Cheatle and organizer Halima Aweis are concerned about: current residents getting priced out of their homes.

“Anything that would actually benefit the lives of the Rochesterians downtown, I would be happy to see the money go towards. But this is going to service tourists, this is going to service people who don’t live in our city, and this is money people in our city actually need,” Aweis said.

She and Cheatle both pointed to Rochester’s sky-high poverty levels. The city is consistently ranked as having some of the highest rates of poverty in the nation. Putting a BID in charge would only lead to sanitizing downtown’s image, they say, without positively impacting those currently in poverty.

“By furthering this divide, we’re furthering this segregation, we’re furthering this disparities, and we’re continuing to push the black and brown populations, the impoverished populations, further down into the condition that they’re in,” Aweis said.

Cheatle pointed to a study on Business Improvement Districts done in D.C. The study concluded Washington’s BID directly contributed to the displacement of Black residents, with little accountability. Cheatle and Aweis worry that the BID in Rochester will go the way of D.C.’s.

“The study clearly states that the BID Legislation is not in the interests of the broader community and it will cause harm. The legislation cannot be fixed by city council, so it must be stopped by city council,” Cheatle said.

Its supporters maintain that the BID, while predominantly for tourists, will bring in plenty of funding, businesses, and ultimately life downtown.

“The mission of Business Improvement Districts all over the country emphasize creating thriving, vibrant, connected, and inclusive places for residents, workers, and visitors,” Brooks said in a statement.

“The BID will help bring us closer to that vision of a more livable workable center city community,” State Sen. Jeremy Cooney said.

Cooney said the plan is for taxpayer dollars to prop up the ambassador program while it’s in the pilot stage. But if it proves successful, which he and Duffy said they believe it will, the ultimate goal is to bring it under the soon-to-be-created BID’s jurisdiction.

When the time comes, the county’s tourism promotion agency Visit Rochester will train the ambassadors. They said they do not yet have a timeline for how many ambassadors will be out on the streets, or when the program will kick off.

To learn more about the RDDC’s plan for a bid, see their visions and guiding principles documentation here. To learn more about the BID Education Committee’s concerns over a bid, click here.