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Fast Start: An eye for a future built on the past

Rochester Business Journal
May 10, 2013

On weekday mornings, when Benjamin Woelk walks across the Pont de Rennes Bridge on his way to the office, he has an unusual view: a thundering waterfall cascading nearly 100 feet into a canyon-in the middle of downtown.
 
In the 19th century, the High Falls powered Rochester's earliest businesses-flour mills, breweries and factories-in what is now the Brown's Race Historic District, perched atop the west side of the gorge. That is where Woelk works.
 
Woelk, 29, first saw High Falls as a 5-year-old on family outings. Now he is associate director of administration and community engagement for GardenAerial, a non-profit that is highlighting the historic area's 21st-century potential.
 
"We talk about it all the time. This is about giving Rochester back to Rochester," Woelk says of conversations with co-workers. "If you neglect a city's birthplace, why are you surprised the city has a self-esteem problem?"
 
Woelk has had a lifelong interest in history. He is that rare Florida native whose roots there go back to the mid-1800s, and he grew up hearing stories of those times. He lived in Rockledge, a small city on the Indian River near Cocoa.
 
His family moved to Rochester when he was young. He says he didn't feel as if he fit in as a teenager and he had trouble in school, attending four different high schools in four years. After graduating in 2002, he earned an associate's degree in liberal arts from Monroe Community College and a music industry bachelor's degree at SUNY College at Oneonta.
 
It was in Oneonta that his interests in community building emerged. He enjoyed organizing concerts, fundraisers, open mic nights and other events that brought people together and raised money for good causes.
 
"Even then I was using music as a tool for community improvement," he says.
 
During a summer marketing internship at a Seattle record label, Woelk first became interested in the role of green spaces in a city environment. When he returned to Rochester, he used his marketing skills to promote area businesses, including Joe Bean Coffee Roasters and Rochester Bride & Groom.
 
He was accepted into the communications master's program at Rochester Institute of Technology but, unsure of his plan, deferred enrollment and left for L'Abri, a retreat center in the Swiss Alps. He returned a couple of months later, refreshed and with a renewed sense of purpose toward community building. He crafted a master's degree focusing on public policy, tourism and marketing through RIT's Center for Multidisciplinary Studies.
 
His job at GardenAerial puts Woelk in the center of efforts to transform Rochester into a destination city. Working closely with city officials, the organization is building support for the GardenAerial, an urban park that gets visitors closer to the water at High Falls-both above the gorge and down inside it.
 
There are plans for a two-level bridge, a kind of arboretum in the sky, that would be partially glass-enclosed for year-round visits. Ideas include a winter garden, a zip line, a cantilevered walkway under the Inner Loop to connect to downtown, even a glass observation tower where the High Falls smokestack used to be on Rochester Gas and Electric Corp. property, but final designs have not been set.
 
Closer to reality is the area's upcoming designation as the first eco-district in New York and the Northeast. The idea was conceived in Portland, Ore. An eco-district is a city neighborhood that is committed to the wise use of resources; sustainable ideals guide investments and decisions made in developing the area.
 
In the case of High Falls, the natural resources of the Genesee River gorge would be preserved. The district could create its own power with microturbines and other alternatives to fossil fuels, and green space would be a priority. New development would follow LEED Platinum design principles.
 
The district would build on the Greentopia Festival, an annual event launched two years ago by Friends of the GardenAerial. It focuses on environmentally friendly practices through kids' activities, film, music, food, fashion and public discussions with expert panels.
 
Proponents say the district would further Rochester's growing reputation as an innovative, creative place.
 
"It's about advocating for the natural assets of our city and our region and figuring out ways to connect people to them," Woelk says.
 
Organizers want Rochesterians to think differently, to expect in their city the kind of design they might encounter on visits to other places, Woelk says. He is managing a project to help the public envision the possibilities: GardenAerial's Flour Garden will fill the historic mill race (along the front of the former Center at High Falls) with native plants and water and lighting features.
 
The Flour Garden and the larger GardenAerial project have help from experts who have created similar things around the U.S., including New York City's High Line, a former elevated railroad-turned-park, and Portland's eco-district.
 
"This is being built (with) support from people who have done this successfully elsewhere," Woelk says.
 
On the side, Woelk recently filed a dba, Slow Road, to produce a local travel series about Upstate New York with Flower City Media. He also is involved in the Western Erie Canal Alliance and in Slow Food Rochester and helps local non-profits find grants.
 
"Kind of what I'm saying is I'm addicted to Upstate New York," he says.
 
At GardenAerial, Woelk writes grant proposals, gives presentations (including an upcoming Flour City TEDx talk) and lines up joint projects with other community groups. A firm belief that Rochester has all the makings of a destination midsize city keeps him going.
 
"I've been to a lot of places," he says. "I think Rochester has something extraordinary to offer."

Fast Start is a biweekly feature focusing on young professionals. Send suggestions for future Fast Start stories to Special Projects Editor Sally Parker at sparker@rbj.net.5/10/13 (c) 2013 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


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