Gene DePrez built a career advising the good and great on the nuance of “location, location, location.”
Stints at Kodak, the Rochester Museum and Science Center, Rochester Institute of Technology and its spinout, the Urbanarium, laid the groundwork for positions of increasing prominence in Washington, the U.K. and New York City. For over 35 years he led the global location, site selection and economic development strategy practices for PHH Fantus, Fluor, PricewaterhouseCoopers, IBM’s Global Location Economic Development Strategies, and now his own firm, Global Innovation Partners.
DePrez has long been the “go to” guy for firms seeking a new headquarters, research or manufacturing location or for communities looking for a new vision. He guided UPS in selecting its new headquarters and Novartis in consolidating and selecting its Global Bio Research Center location, among hundreds of others. He has facilitated the development of business attraction strategies for a score of states and metro areas, including Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Toronto, Phoenix and Research Triangle Park in North Carolina.
And now he’s back. Since he just turned 80, it is tempting to call him “retired.” Fortunately for Rochester, he’s simply relocated all that energy and knowledge back to his hometown.
Surprising for a business location expert, DePrez’s undergraduate and graduate degrees at RIT were in graphic communications design—which he sees as very much tied to problem solving. A compulsive communicator and persistently curious, he gravitated to the student-produced newspaper. The Official Publication of RIT , becoming editor-in-chief of the 8-12 page, full-color weekly with a circulation of 4,000.
In the early 1960s, full color was the domain of magazines and glossy circulars, not newspapers. RIT’s was the second full-process color newspaper in the country, made possible by the advanced production capabilities of RIT’s Graphic Arts Research Department. As head of a small student team, DePrez led editors, writers, designers, photographers and print production coordinators.
Following graduation and several years at RIT in educational media development and new campus planning, DePrez joined Kodak in 1965 as a writer-producer of multimedia marketing communication and education. By 1970 he’d concluded that Kodak’s future was uncertain, finding a company and culture that seemed mired in the past, wedded to traditional film and filled with too many colleagues counting the days to retirement.
While at Kodak he’d been working with Blackfriars Theatre to stage Berthold Brecht’s “Galileo” at the new planetarium (which opened in 1968). Invited to join the staff at the planetarium just as it was merging with the Municipal Museum to form the Rochester Museum and Science Center, DePrez became RMSC’s first director of communications.
An expansion of New York State Council on the Arts funding brought new opportunities to Rochester, fueling growth for the museum and laying the groundwork for program expansion. It included funding for what became the Urbanarium, an initiative to provide community development education to help area residents and students better understand urban issues like housing, transportation, planning and citizen involvement.
RIT president, Paul Miller, pulled in DePrez as RIT’s first director of communications and to lead the Urbanarium in 1971 to expand the concept of citizen education and community involvement. The Urbanarium was a broad-based community collaborative including Monroe Community College, St. John Fisher College, Nazareth College, RIT, Rochester Museum and Science Center, Rochester-Monroe County Library System, SUNY Brockport, the Center for Governmental Research and WXXI Public Broadcasting.
Expanded on the strength of major grants from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Xerox, Bausch & Lomb, Gannett, Rochester Area Foundation and other funding sources, the Urbanarium’s purpose was to “develop an informed and competent citizenry—people who are capable of identifying pressing physical, social and economic problems—recognizing their relationship” and “then determining alternate methods to ‘take action’ on these problems.” It involved faculty and students from area colleges and a wide range of local citizens and leaders.
DePrez stayed with the Urbanarium as president and CEO when it was spun off in 1978 as Urbanarium Inc. with a mission of “Building Partnerships for a Greater Rochester.” By 1982, the task of keeping the Urbanarium funded overwhelmed the good work, and the leadership decided to close it with a celebration of accomplishments and challenging the community “to keep the light shining.”
Enticed by the potential of an international career, DePrez accepted an offer to become president of PartnershipsDataNet, created by the White House, the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Civic League, United Way of America and other national groups and foundations to share data and spur collaborations, private sector initiatives and public-private partnerships across the U.S. DePrez and his wife, Patty, moved to Washington. Eventually DePrez was recruited to PHH Fantus in the New York City area and his 35-year career in corporate location consulting and economic development strategy.
But he never lost his appreciation for Rochester. I met DePrez at a conference of the International Economic Development Council in Dallas. Promoting CGR’s work with local economic developers, DePrez called to introduce himself and offered to show me around. I soon found that this was a valuable offer he was a deeply respected leader and a genuine “big wheel” in the organization.
DePrez and Patty both grew up here, Gene in the 19th Ward and Patty in Flower City Park. After living for a few years as a married couple in Greece, they moved with their two children to Canterbury Road in the Park Avenue area, both becoming active in community organizations.
They’ve been planning to return to Rochester for several years. They signed up early for a loft apartment in the Nathaniel. That’s the new building on the eastern bank of the Genesee, across Court Street from the library’s Rundel Building. Their fifth-floor apartment looks out over the rushing river and the new riverwalk promenade. The cultural wealth of Rochester is within walking distance or a quick drive. Fond of theater, Gene and Patty can walk to Geva in a matter of minutes. The combination of quality, quantity and access are magical to our prodigal son .
I spoke with DePrez about Rochester and economic development. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
ROCHESTER BEACON: What did you take away from the Urbanarium experience?
GENE DEPREZ: The key insight is the proven need for community leadership and collaboration. Whether it is economic development or education reform or any other community issue, the Urbanarium showed that engaging individuals and institutions across the community is essential. Finding common ground was our focus.
There was a lot talk at the time about metropolitan government. A lot of the successful cities across the country have some form of collaborative government, not necessarily true metropolitan government, but a structure with much stronger collaboration than we seem to have been able to sustain here in Rochester.
Since the Urbanarium closed up shop, it seems that every year or so a new organization gets created to accomplish similar goals, to bring the community together around key issues—people from the neighborhoods, political leaders, business leaders of companies. The Urbanarium illustrated what can be done and how hard this work is to maintain. These new initiatives get started, go on for six months or a year, then end because they just take too much energy to sustain.
I’m reminded of the potential every time I walk past the Monroe County Crime Laboratory —that was a project that got focused with facilitation through the Urbanarium by a police sciences and criminal justice professor at MCC, faculty and students from RIT and key research support from CGR. We were able to get all of the police agencies together and agree that the community didn’t need separate and duplicative crime labs run by the county, the city and the various towns.
The Pont de Rennes pedestrian bridge concept grew out of an Urbanarium initiative called “The Rochester Idea.” Xerox donated a demonstration van with “The Rochester Idea” painted on the side. We drove it all over the city and county asking “What’s your idea for a better Rochester?” We had volunteer architects, engineers and graphic designers working with us to help interpret citizen ideas into understandable visualizations and preliminary project specs.
One of the ideas that emerged was converting the Platt Street Bridge into what became the Pont de Rennes. The Urbanarium also worked with the Charlotte neighborhood leaders in the mid ‘70s to help advance the restoration of the Charlotte Lighthouse, and then to support the annual “Rediscover the River Day,” which I was happy to see continues in some form even to this day.
ROCHESTER BEACON: That sounds a lot like what the Rochester Regional Community Design Center has been able to achieve—and sustain. The ideas taking shape through ROC the Riverway were also developed through a community engagement process. The newly created ROC2025 initiative reflects this continuing need for community collaboration, business led in this case. As a new initiative, you’ll want to learn more about ROC2025’s plans.
DEPREZ: I agree, and since we returned in November I have been attending these programs and meeting with some of the leaders involved. In fact, reading about these initiatives from afar was a major factor in our decision to return to our hometown, especially the excitement around ROC the Riverway, which led us to establish our new home at the Nathaniel on the river.
ROCHESTER BEACON: How has the economic attraction business changed over your career?
DEPREZ: Today it’s about talent and it’s about infrastructure—much less about logistics and real estate. First, logistics has gotten dramatically better globally, and, second, the economy has changed. Manufacturing is still vitally important, but innovation, technology based services and entrepreneurial development provide the base of most digitally driven business investment today.
In spite of all the noise and controversy around incentives, the Amazon process (Amazon’s widely publicized search for a second headquarters) was all about talent. Where can you find the people you really need, not only now but in the future? How can you find the adaptable workforce that can rapidly change and isn’t stuck in old ways? How can we develop a creative community and workforce in the Rochester Finger Lakes region and retain the talent that comes out of our unique collection of area universities and colleges each year?
That’s what has impacted the manufacturing centers of the Midwest—the workforce was very, very capable in the things it was doing but challenged by not have the training or the opportunity or maybe the mindset to be adaptable as you need to be given the change in technologies. The half-life of virtually every job is getting shorter every year.
In the hundreds of speeches I’ve given in economic development circles over the years, I’ve emphasized the need to anticipate the job profiles of industry in five, seven or eight years down the road. Many economic development programs are based on identifying workforce needs for today, but fall short identifying and preparing for job profiles and titles that don’t even exist today.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Is it an impossible task to anticipate these needs?
DEPREZ: There’s lots of research out there by McKinsey, IBM Business Consulting, PwC, Boston Consulting, Deloitte and other forecasters that look at the needs of a particular industry in the future. But the key remains adaptability, the ability to be able to move ahead to the next thing. Workers need the ability and willingness to learn on the job and a curiosity about the future.
ROCHESTER BEACON: I would think that Rochester would be good at this, identifying the coming needs and helping the workforce prepare for it.
DEPREZ: I would, too. With the 18 to 19 colleges in the area we should be able to make a case to business that we have the ability to deliver a great workforce at all levels. From MCC through to RIT and University of Rochester, the breadth and diversity of academic institutions brings an opportunity to offer a lot to the workforce and to employers. Perhaps with sector development and facilitating organizations supported by ROC2025 and some of the entities clustering around the new Sibley Square, working closely with RIT, UR, SUNY, MCC and others, we can make real progress around strategies and initiatives. In particular I support the concept advanced by RIT President (David) Munson—working at the intersection of technology, art and design. This seems to me to be a proposition well-suited to the unique qualities of the Rochester area with its rich technology, design and cultural heritage and core resources.
And we have the cultural and recreational assets that can help us retain workers, too. Again, it’s about talent attraction and retention. That’s what brought Patty and me back to Rochester. We’d been living in the New York area where everything is available—and not available. You have to leave 2 to 3 hours in advance to access these resources. You have to ask, “How will traffic be? Will the tunnel or bridge be open? Will we find good parking?” It’s a project.
I remember when we were living on Canterbury Road and we heard that there was going to be a concert—a free concert—at Kilbourn Hall with Renée Fleming! Free! I got in my car and parked on Gibbs Street and walked inside. Where else could you do that? I did that again just the other night for a world-class Eastman School jazz performance.
Just a few weeks ago, I learned that the Rochester Regional Community Design Center had booked a great speaker on a night when we already had tickets to Geva. “But wait,” I told myself. “This is Rochester. The RRCDC meeting starts at 5:30, and Geva starts at 7:30. I can do both!” The speaker ended her presentation at 7 at the Gleason Works Auditorium. And I met Patty at Geva in time for a glass of wine before the show. In the New York/New Jersey area, I’d have spent as much to park as I paid for the show and couldn’t have dreamed of attending two events in the same evening.
If you couple the cultural assets with the educational resources and the entrepreneurial spirit that is here, Rochester has a lot to offer, unique for its size and accessibility.
ROCHESTER BEACON: I was looking at Area Development magazine’s 30-year retrospective on corporate site location factors. The one number that stands out is “quality of life”—60 percent of respondents mentioned this in 1986 and 88 percent in 2015.
DEPREZ: I’d be cautious about putting too much stock in those surveys. But that number certainly matches my experience. It gets back to talent. When I got started in this business you looked at the qualifications of people getting out of high school and, to a lesser degree, people graduating from college. We were looking at people in that community. Quality of life wasn’t an issue as they were already there.
I used to get laughed at by my traditional manufacturing consulting buddies when I talked about quality of life. “Oh, that doesn’t matter,” they’d say. But this affects not only your ability to attract people but to retain talent. That’s what will help Rochester attract and retain all of these people at the universities.
I’ve been all over the world and visited virtually every major city and compared every major city for our clients—why would I want to come back to Rochester? Part of it was family, but we knew that everything we wanted was here and so easy to get to, more so than in Northern New Jersey or in Washington, D.C. It was complicated to get where we wanted to go and you had to fight the crowds. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of the cultural base we have here in Rochester, along with the parks, the Finger Lakes, the natural beauty. It’s all here.
ROCHESTER BEACON: You have written a lot in recent years about branding. Where would you go with this in Rochester today?
DEPREZ: It’s about focusing on the talent base—not just the talent base that’s here but what’s in the pipeline at the universities. You build on that and couple it with the cultural base. We should be going after a global market. As foreign investors are looking at North America they will find proximity to Canada important. We have the assets.
Quality of life and the intellectual capital base is key—attracting and retaining talent.
Again, Dave Munson’s quote about RIT (“Technology at the intersection of art and design”) really resonates with me. Munson is an engineer who comes here and sees the unique capability to integrate technology and creativity. And it applies to UR, too.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Any specific advice for our new county executive, Adam Bello? The previous administration has focused quite a bit on tax incentives. Is that a good strategy?
DEPREZ: If companies are really honest with you, the long-term issue is whether they can operate in the business environment and build a productive business over the long term. They’ll look at incentives when they are down to the last couple of choices—maybe it will be a tie-breaker and help with one-time costs. In the 1,500 projects or so I’ve evaluated, I can only think of one or two where incentives really made a difference in the initial screening and selection. In fact, I can think of a dozen where the CEO told me, “I don’t even want to hear about incentives.”
If the business fundamentals aren’t right, the company will be gone once the incentives run out. Today’s digitally based businesses are fleet of foot—they tend to lease, they tend to avoid big capital investments. So you need to have an inducement program, sure. But focus on the fundamentals.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Do incentives play a role in retention?
DEPREZ: Established firms should have the same opportunities as new firms. The problem is that companies will fake it, saying, “We’re going to leave unless … ” So you need to do the analysis of incentives and make sure that the community is getting what it needs from the inducement. You shouldn’t give away more than its worth. You need to focus on how companies really make decisions.
When you give a tax break to one firm, the taxes have to be made up somewhere else. They aren’t free.
Kent Gardner is Rochester Beacon opinion editor. This article is based on an interview on Dec. 4, 2019 and some follow-up conversations.