Rochester: Face-Lift for "The World's Image Center." (6 Hot Cities for Black Business)(includes Related Article on Mayor William A. Johnson Jr.)

By Prince, Richard | Black Enterprise, May 1994 | Go to article overview

Rochester: Face-Lift for "The World's Image Center." (6 Hot Cities for Black Business)(includes Related Article on Mayor William A. Johnson Jr.)


Prince, Richard, Black Enterprise


The signals that things would be different in Rochester came even before January's inauguration of Mayor William A. Johnson Jr. For his transition co-chairs on economic development, Johnson appointed African-American and Hispanic small-business owners and, in a role reversal, it was they who gave direction to members of the city's business establishment.

Rochester, N.Y., an old industrial city on Lake Ontario, today touts itself as "The World's Image Center," acknowledging the dominance of the city by major employers Eastman Kodak Co., Xerox Corp. and Bausch and Lomb, makers of optical equipment.

What most concerns Johnson, however, is the city undergirding the image--a city 31.5% African-American that began the decade with nearly one-fourth of its residents below the poverty level. Johnson intends to rehabilitate 305 of Rochester's abandoned buildings. "It doesn't make sense to build houses and not have services--cafes, boutiques, for example--that would create ownership opportunities and jobs for people," Johnson says, adding that empowerment efforts will focus on "local people first."

That's welcome news for Rochester's small black business community, which has seen itself laboring in a conservative, if not hostile, environment in the past. "I can't tell you the [amount] of time we've had to spend in meetings just trying to prove ourselves. The assumption is that we're not up to speed," says Mary-Frances Winters, former head of the Black Business Association, an arm of the Chamber of Commerce. A one-time Kodak employee who 10 years ago formed The Winters Group, a research consulting firm, Winters co-chaired Johnson's transition committee on economic development.

On the corporate front, the aftershocks of downsizing hang over the city as bleakly as its perpetually gray skies. At 1993's end, Kodak and Xerox each announced plans to lay off 10,000 workers nationwide; Bausch and Lomb, 500 worldwide. For Kodak, it was only the latest round. "The layoffs hit a lot of brothers and sisters," says Willie Tookes of Network Northstar, Kodak's 275-member black employees group.

The silver lining is that the companies might now contract out some of their work to minority businesses. Also, Kodak's sluggish performance has resulted in a new, diversity-oriented CEO, George M.C. Fisher, former CEO at Motorola. Meanwhile, at Xerox, Richard S. Barton, 45, is now resident of U.S. Customer Operations, a Rochester-based operation that employs about 3,000 employees in the area.

Many of Rochester's larger African-American businesses are manufacturers. Among them: Eltrex Industries, formed to provide job training in the aftermath of the city's 1964 riots; Cannon Industries Inc., a sheet metal and electromechanical processor; and P.A. Plastics, a plastic parts maker. Two other area businesses rank among the BE AUTO DEALER 100: Bob Johnson Chevrolet Inc. and Jesse Thompson's Duryea Ford Inc.

As in much of the nation, health care is this area's fastest growing industry. Cleve Killingsworth, an African-American, is senior vice president of the Health Care Operation Group of Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Rochester, and the city's managed-care health care system is touted as a national model for reform. Yet, the field remains largely untapped by black entrepreneurs. Both the city and the state have reaffirmed their minority set-aside programs. Technical assistance is available from the Rochester Business Opportunity Corp. and the Minority Business Development Center of Upstate New York.

MAYOR WILLIAM A. JOHNSON JR.

William A. Johnson Jr., the first African-American mayor of Rochester, for 20 years had been what he calls "the ultimate political outsider," as president of the city's Urban League. …

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