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Rochester Business Leader Calls for Courage, Commitment to Break Silos and Create Systemic Change

Patti Singer

According to Bob Duffy, CEO of the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce, business people may be making decisions based on their perception of the disarray in Rochester. File photo

Rochester ranks No. 1 for its potential to develop high-tech, high-income jobs, according to two economists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology who wrote a book that put Rochester on that perch.

Rochester ranks No. 1 in overall poverty, childhood poverty and extreme poverty compared to 17 similarly sized metropolitan areas, according Census Bureau data cited by ACT Rochester and the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative.

Are they talking about the same place and what place, exactly, are they talking about?

Bob Duffy, the president and chief executive officer of the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce said Rochester is seen as the hub for the Finger Lakes region.

But that hub has its problems right now. Poverty, a struggling school district, racial inequities, a mayor under indictment related to campaign finance and a police force under investigation for the death of Daniel Prude and being scrutinized for using pepper spray on a 9-year-old.

Already, one business has cancelled plans to come to Rochester, Duffy said. He declined to name the company, but said “they decided to take a pass … because of all the uproar.”

“I believe this was before the pepper spray incident itself,” he said. “It would’ve been back in the last few months. I’ve had countless conversations with business leaders here who are asking me for my opinion, or asking me my sense of what the future holds here.”

Duffy said every administration has its challenges. “It’s not so much the incidents, it’s how you address those and what happens going forward.”

He said the incidents between police with Daniel Prude and between police and girl have “not projected us in the best light. We need to address the issues that are causing fractures in our community. … The gaps and the divisions seem to get wider as opposed to coming together. And that does certainly cause concern for people who would invest their own money in a business.

“Anytime there is uncertainty or controversy, it is not good for the overall thought process of the business community,” he said. “Businesses want to come to a place where they can grow, where there is certainty and where there is support.”

In an exclusive conversation with Minority Reporter, Duffy talked about the potential effects of the city’s disarray on addressing its chronic concerns.

The county is working to improve opportunities for women and minority-owned businesses. Congressman Joe Morelle has legislation that will have regions, including Rochester, competing for billions of federal dollars to foster innovation. But are we somehow sabotaging ourselves or not ready for it?

“I think everybody is trying to understand what we can do better. I think we have to look differently at the police department. … I think you can certainly create what you want in a police department going forward. And I would tell you that there are so many outstanding police officers who serve this community so well with great relationships. They’re out there every day. I know we have problems, and I think those problems need to be addressed and need to be addressed quickly.

“I think this is where leadership really counts and leadership in the police department, leadership at a city leadership at all levels, leadership in the community that come together and how do we fix this and make it better. … All these different systems that we have where people are frustrated with, but there’s a lack of either the courage or commitment to change those systems. …

I just think we need a much better alignment, leadership wise, in our schools, our city, our community, our different institutions. I think there’s a lot of good work being done in so many different areas and a lot of very committed people. But Rochester historically has always been more of a silo city. A lot of these things operate independently. Well, the results at a school system impact business and impact the community and impact our talent and impact their growth. The results of the police department also impact the community and impact the perceptions and relationships. So much of it is about systemic change.”

So if we don’t fix this, do we lose business and then we lose the opportunity to fix it?

“… We don’t want to lose any more we’ve lost already. …

“If I’m constantly reading bad news about that community, I will choose somewhere else. So we have to accept that as a reality. We have to stop the self-inflicted wounds. And it takes leadership. It takes collaboration, it takes courage. … And right now I’ve never seen things more divided … and this can’t go on. I think we have to pull ourselves out of it … it is a collective responsibility of all of us to do this.”

You said there is division among government and leaders. Yet leaders often say they collaborate.

“We have areas where it does work, areas where it doesn’t work, but I think our politics sometimes becomes toxic here, where so much effort is, is these battles and fights behind the scenes. And I think we need less politics and more public service. … I go back to the business community. They are watching very carefully. We have businesses that have really great confidence, our community in our city that invested very heavily.

“But when there is uncertainty, where there is unrest, when there are divisions, when there are these big gaps, they begin to worry about their investments in terms of what they have built. … I don’t think we’re at a point where we throw up our hands yet, but I think we have work to do. … It really is part of, I think our DNA here in Rochester, where we seem to always operate in different silos and operate somewhat independently. And that’s not the path to success. And I think a lot of the issues, the divisions that we want to bridge and the inequities you want to bridge, it gets harder when people are fighting each other, as opposed to looking to pool our resources and work on these things.”