I recently sat down with Kathleen Harrington, interim executive director at Rochester Downtown Alliance (RDA), to chat about how Rochester downtown has changed over the years. We met, aptly, at Cafe Steam, a fixture in downtown Rochester.
Harrington started by saying that downtown has “had a history of great adaptability and creativity and survivability, and a long history of working to be sustainable.” She says, “The people who have been part of that and that are still here deserve a lot of credit for their creativity and ability to manage change.”
She explains that when the mall was developed, a group of people created what is now the RDA to “revitalize the downtown,” adding that the Historic Chateau Theatre has always helped to activate the downtown area, and we continue to see “a lot of thought going into that asset for the vitality of the downtown area.” The RDA is made up of businesses and individuals whose collective mission is to have a vital and vibrant downtown.
Downtown and DMC
“Destination Medical Center (DMC) was created to enhance the patient and community experience around Mayo, and the downtown is critical for that,” explains Harrington. Patients at Mayo Clinic are a huge part of the economic base of downtown, and so the focus on creating excellent experiences and services is important for them as well as for the local clientele. Harrington says that it’s important to “make sure that both are considered and cared for to ensure as much commerce downtown as possible.”
She goes on to say, “The economics of downtown are based on the degree of commerce downtown, and that’s based on feet on the ground. Things that bring customers downtown, things that attract people to live here and to come downtown are critically important, as are the look and feel, the assets, the stores, the restaurants—they add to the economic base and make people think of downtown as a destination.”
Downtown and COVID-19
COVID-19 had a tremendous impact on the downtown since such a huge portion of its economic viability is due to visiting patients who couldn’t visit during the pandemic. Harrington lauds the “amazing generosity of some of the landlords” for giving their tenants discounted lease rates or not requiring payment for up to a full year, which was “so important for the preservation of downtown.” She also credits the government funding which helped businesses survive, and she says, “Many businesses have now recovered to pre-pandemic levels because of innovation to business models and marketing techniques. It is awe inspiring.”
With many businesses continuing to offer telework, the traffic of local workers in downtown Rochester has changed. Harrington says, “What downtown is working on is how we are working on this reality. Businesses and restaurants are asking how they can attract new customers. It’s hard. There isn’t a ready market anymore.”
Harrington says that downtown businesses are trying to “work with the community to make sure that they know that Rochester downtown is a fun destination.” The events that the RDA creates are meant to attract a variety of people to the downtown area as a destination for socializing, shopping, dining and entertainment.
She says that it’s a unique shopping experience, where you can get a “cool winter coat and a great wedding gift” and anything from “a men’s suit to a fun Nordic sweater.” There is also great shopping in the subway level.
While there have been major challenges, Harrington notes, “We have some great assets that most towns don’t—Mayo Clinic, great public spaces like Peace Plaza, thriving restaurants, great shopping and a commitment to vitality.”
She references the Downtown Rochester Task Force, explaining that it is a “collaborative effort by many people who touch the city, sitting at the same table to gather information and input from a variety of downtown stakeholders.” Representatives from Mayo, DMC, the City of Rochester, Experience Rochester, the Rochester Chamber of Commerce, RDA and others gathered to brainstorm and gather information, according to the website, “in response to the long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on downtown Rochester.” There were four sessions where the public could come and provide their thoughts about ideas for a vibrant downtown, share what barriers they saw and think about solutions.
She says, “We are in a good position to move forward, and the focus of the task force is only going to add energy to getting some of the problems solved so that we can move towards growth. We’re going to fix it together.”
Harrington is excited for the future. She envisions “full storefronts, a vibrant economy, more foot traffic, multigenerational entrepreneurs, a diverse vital community where everyone feels welcome.” She hopes for opportunities for a variety of groups to gather downtown and “feel like it is a welcoming place.” She envisions the entire community working together to solve problems to “make a bigger impact.”
She ends by saying that she is already seeing that future, noting, “It is phenomenal to see new restaurants with customers that aren’t necessarily patients.” The future is bright for our downtown.