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Stifling taxes and ineffective government have created roadblocks to growth-and that is especially irritating in a region brimming with potential, young business leaders say.
Job creation and stimulating economic growth are other hot-button issues for Rochester. In a recent survey, Forty Under 40 honorees recognized over the last 15 years also pointed to the importance of retaining and attracting talent here, fixing the education system and creating equal opportunities for all. Developing downtown, reforming health care and fostering the growth of small businesses also are key concerns.
The survey, sent to all 560 former Forty Under 40 honorees to update their personal information for this supplement, included this question: "What is the most significant economic or public policy issue facing the Rochester community?" Nearly 260 honorees responded to the question.
Roughly one-third of respondents said high taxes are a big hurdle to doing business in Rochester and attracting new companies to the area. In 2004, in a similar survey conducted for the 10th anniversary of Forty Under 40, only 11 percent of past honorees said taxes and state government stood in the way of growth.
"The most significant economic issue facing the Rochester community is the high tax burden," wrote Lesia Telega, director of business development at Lazer Inc. and a 1998 Forty Under 40 honoree. "The high rate of both corporate and property taxes is making it difficult for businesses to remain competitive.
"Tax reforms need to be implemented that will help keep jobs and people in our area."
Cathryn Thomas, city administrator and public services director for the city of New Castle, Del., said the burden of income, property and sales taxes in Monroe County continues to drive individuals and businesses out of Rochester.
"These issues are made worse when huge sums of tax dollars are wasted and community members are paying for long-term investments with nothing to show for them (i.e., the fast ferry, Renaissance Square)," wrote Thomas, former Webster town supervisor and a 1996 Forty Under 40 honoree.
Frustration with government was a significant theme, with 28 percent of respondents wanting to reduce red tape and the cost of doing business, curb excessive spending and install better leaders in New York State.
"We need leaders to remember who elected them to office and to not lose sight of the real issues facing the people in the community-loss of jobs, uncertainty for the future, safety and education of our children and having leaders with the vision to guide public policy," commented Randall Shepard, principal of Bonadio & Co. LLP, who was named to the 2008 class.
He was echoed by Peter Buckley, president of the Buckley Group Inc.: "There are far too many people in positions of power who only know how to play 'small ball.'"
The 2005 Forty Under 40 honoree added that the "only big visionary risk that this community has taken (fast ferry) was poorly planned and managed, and I fear that its failure will inhibit us from making bold and smart decisions for our future."
Joseph Rulison, managing director of private wealth management in Upstate New York for JPMorgan Chase & Co., labeled Rochester "one of the best places to live in the world." But Rulison, who was in the inaugural class of Forty Under 40 honorees in 1995, acknowledged that "taxes and leadership in New York State are stumping our ability to grow and move forward." Among other hurdles he cited was the area's inability to work cooperatively and advocate with one voice.
Economic growth is key to Rochester's future, respondents said. Five years ago, that also was a leading issue for those surveyed. Some 34 percent ranked that as a challenge for the community at the time.
"Rochester and New York State in general need to put aside local politics and work with both local business and higher education to bring new jobs into the area," wrote Vincent Leo, partner at Insero & Cos. CPAs P.C. and a 1997 Forty Under 40 honoree. "Based on success stories in other areas of the country, business, education and local government are the three legs of the stool to accomplish this goal-and they must work together."
Twenty-five percent of those surveyed pointed to the need for economic growth fueled by the creation of high-quality jobs.
"We need to curb unemployment, attract new businesses to the area, and retain our younger population. Easy, right?" said Michael Baron, creative director at Partners +Napier Inc. and a 2008 Forty Under 40 honoree.
Stemming brain drain and providing opportunities for college graduates, young professionals and business leaders to stay in the area also is regarded as a priority. Some 15 percent of respondents said the exodus of talent connects to the dearth of challenging careers here.
"We spend too much time trying to minimize our liabilities at the cost of maximizing our assets," said Michael Cooney, a 1996 Forty Under 40 honoree and partner and head of the higher education and exempt organizations team at Nixon Peabody LLP, addressing the difficulty in keeping college graduates in the area.
Improving graduation rates and fixing the city school system demand attention, some 14 percent of respondents said. Rachel August, executive director of the Seneca Park Zoo Society, is "distressed" by low graduation rates in city schools.
"It is a challenge to teach science literacy at the zoo because students are unable to comprehend or even read the simplest of interpretive signs," noted August, who was named to the 1998 class. "Charitable initiatives like the Rochester Rotary Club providing individualized attention to School No. 8 children make an impact, but it is a communitywide problem, whether you live in the city or not."
Another 1998 Forty Under 40 honoree, Leslie Zornow, who is senior vice president of retail banking and marketing for Fairport Savings Bank, said the community must be committed to giving every child the opportunity for a high-quality education in a safe environment.
A growing wealth gap and lack of equal opportunity for all sections of society worry some 10 percent of past Forty Under 40 honorees.
"The education and economic disparities are driving new trends in medical costs in our community, affecting productivity of our local businesses and decreasing the overall purchasing power of our community," said Hoffman Moka Lantum M.D., director of medical services business improvement at Excellus BlueCross BlueShield and a 2005 Forty Under 40 honoree.
Strong National Museum of Play's Laura Sadowski thinks the economic disparity between city dwellers and suburbanites has created a "non-productive mind-set of 'us and them.'"
"The problems facing the Rochester community belong to us all, and we must all work together to address them," Sadowski added. She is Strong Museum's senior vice president for institutional advancement and a 1995 Forty Under 40 honoree.
Though daunting tasks lie ahead, the area can tackle them by working together, respondents said. A thriving downtown Rochester, for example, could lure businesses and young people to the area, some 7 percent said.
"The city needs to have a downtown center that is active, offers housing options that people desire and offers amenities that will attract people to the city," said Quentin Roach, senior vice president and chief procurement officer at Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., who was named to the 2003 class while working at Bausch & Lomb Inc.
Michael Burns, vice president of investor relations and external reporting at Harris Interactive Inc. and a 2006 Forty Under 40 honoree, also sees the revitalization of downtown as imperative.
"Our local leaders need to put their partisan political interests aside to work together to redevelop Main Street and attract companies who are financially able to relocate downtown," he wrote.
Speaking with one voice and being optimistic could pave the way for a brighter tomorrow, those who were surveyed agreed. Seven percent of respondents said Rochester needs to abandon its poor self-image and embrace new possibilities.
"If Rochester is going to sustain a reasonable standard of living into the 21st century, what is needed above all else is a new mind-set," said Michael Stone, president and CEO of BrandOrchard Inc. and a 1997 Forty Under 40 honoree. "We need to rethink our identity and how we will achieve success in the new economy."
Nurturing small business and an entrepreneurial spirit also is important, some 6 percent of Forty Under 40 alums said.
"We have untapped residual resources from the history of excellence with Kodak, Xerox and B&L in the form of dormant patents-patents that have technologies yet to be commercialized," wrote James Gabalski, director of strategy services at Emerge Partners and a 2001 Forty Under 40 honoree. "The major issue is that we have not found a way to tap into those patents and entrepreneurial spirit to foster a new Rochester, which I envision being built upon excellence in technology provided by small and medium-sized companies.
James Kaman, who was in the 1997 class and is senior director and general counsel at Pyramid Brokerage Co., agreed.
"The camera was a fantastic invention which Kodak capitalized on, as was the copier for Xerox," he noted. "We need to help nurture more inventors/entrepreneurs with great ideas to help create the next Kodak or Xerox in Rochester."
The area is at its best when it is a leader, commented Donald Johnson, president of Town & Country Travel Inc. and a 1997 Forty Under 40 honoree.
"Whether it's education, quality of life, job creation or health care, our community has always been considered a leader," he said. "Let's lead by example, and the state and federal government can follow!"
11/06/09 15th Anniversary 2009 Forty Under 40 supplement; (c) 2009 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.