Heidi Zimmer-Meyer is known for her enthusiasm about downtown Rochester. As she readies to retire from her position as president of Rochester Downtown Development Corp. after nearly four decades, that zeal remains.
Downtown Rochester has witnessed numerous changes over Zimmer-Meyer’s tenure. Though department stores disappeared, residential spaces have flourished, and businesses have found homes in the heart of the city.
“Today, excitement about the center of the city is palpable, and the psychic shift in attitudes about downtown is evident among residents, younger workers, real estate developers, lenders, and the tech community,” Zimmer-Meyer says.
Keeping that excitement going will require work. Zimmer-Meyer views street-level vitality and ensuring that downtown Rochester welcomes and reflects all in the community as key challenges for the center city.
Still, she is optimistic about emerging population trends that show a migration from large cities to smaller metros. Zimmer-Meyer expects Rochester to gain from this shift and from others such as events in public spaces, which grew out of the pandemic, and benefits from the ROC the Riverway initiative.
But most importantly, she believes Rochester needs to build economic equity into its systems to nurture family and neighborhood wealth.
“We all need to prosper for true regional economic growth to happen,” Zimmer-Meyer says.
The RDDC executive announced her retirement earlier this month. She will step down at the end of the year to spend time traveling to see family and mulling the possibility of a family business.
The Rochester Beacon posed a few questions to Zimmer-Meyer. Her responses are below.
ROCHESTER BEACON: In your time with RDDC, have Rochesterians’ views on downtown changed?
HEIDI ZIMMER-MEYER: Absolutely. When I came up here from North Carolina 37 years ago, the first suburban mall had been built and there were a growing number of suburban shopping centers. But Sibley’s, McCurdy’s and B. Forman’s were still a major force in the regional retail sector. People were out on the streets, in Midtown Plaza, and at downtown restaurants midday every weekday and on Saturdays. People felt proud about downtown.
But you could already see the fraying around the edges of that world. In the late 1980s, the first suburban office parks were being built, which created an alternative for business location, and a growing number of companies began to move out of the city. By the mid-1990s, bank mergers and acquisitions caused major contractions in leased space, and the movement to the suburbs was in full swing. The closure of the big downtown department stores and ultimately Midtown Plaza followed, signaling a new age of retail upheavals, which resulted in a loss of downtown workers on the street. I’d say that was when downtown officially bottomed out, and as downtown became emptier, people felt less safe and for the first time the word “downtown” became fraught with negative connotations.
But by the year 2000, we began seeing a smattering of residential conversions and tech spaces, and by 2002 residential conversions were a full-on trend—not just in downtown Rochester, but in downtowns nationwide. With 60 buildings converted to residential since the year 2000, the whole tenor of the center city changed. We went from 3,250 people living downtown, to more than 8,500 today. That trend sparked the organic growth of the Downtown Innovation Zone, which went from 108 innovation and creative class enterprises in early 2016 to 193 today, and now hosts seven business incubators, accelerators and major tech meetup spaces. Today, excitement about the center of the city is palpable, and the psychic shift in attitudes about downtown is evident among residents, younger workers, real estate developers, lenders, and the tech community.
ROCHESER BEACON: The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated a trend already under way: a population shift away from large metro areas. Is Rochester in a position to benefit from this trend?
ZIMMER-MEYER: Yes, and we are already seeing this play out. Just look at Greater Rochester Enterprise, where they are drinking water out of a firehose right now. A “normal” annual caseload of incoming and locally expanding companies was 30 to 35 before 2020. They had 34 wins last year during COVID, and now have a caseload of 70 companies. Our ability to leverage this national trend will be a function of how well our regional marketing (e.g., Greater ROC), talent portals (the Chamber is about to launch a big one), and other systems that link talent to open jobs all work to make this easier for people. We need to keep more of our college grads here (e.g., Campus ROC). More importantly, we need to build economic equity into our systems so we can grow family and neighborhood wealth over time, and access and enable the massive untapped human capital in our city. We all need to prosper for true regional economic growth to happen.
ROCHESTER BEACON: The pandemic nationwide also has clouded the outlook for commercial real estate, with more companies embracing remote work. Does this pose a risk for downtown Rochester?
ZIMMER-MEYER: Some of the trends that were in play before the pandemic certainly accelerated during COVID. Online shopping, restaurant delivery and remote working are the three big ones. I suspect that when the dust settles after things return to some kind of normal, we will see a blended working pattern. I think it will vary by industry sector and corporate culture. But I do not think that face-to-face interactions will be abandoned. If anything, once it feels safe for people to return to the workplace, the majority will. But I also think that a new kind of flexibility will have to be built into the framework for many employers. People are now expecting that, and as long as productivity doesn’t suffer, why not? Some businesses are planning on a reduced footprint, building in “hot desks” shared by multiple employees on different schedules and/or more long-term remote working options. We have long been in a world where everyone is competing for talent, so anything that works better for employees is a good thing.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Overall, what’s the biggest challenge downtown is likely to face over the next decade?
ZIMMER-MEYER: There are two that I foresee: 1. increasing street-level vitality; and 2. ensuring that downtown feels welcoming to and reflects everyone in our community. Ironically, smaller and much bigger cities seem to have far more front-facing first-floor tenancy than Rochester currently does (e.g., retail operations, food and beverage businesses, art galleries, salons and barber shops). Surprisingly, several retailers have opened up downtown during COVID, including a grocery store and high-end corner store. The next big plays downtown will be programming events in public spaces, leveraging ROC the Riverway’s potential, and growing street-level tenancy.
Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.