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Mayor Warren shares vision on fighting poverty

David Riley

A small busload of city officials and leaders of several local foundations will head to Cleveland on Thursday to get a firsthand look at the model for an anti-poverty initiative in Rochester.

The contingent will check out the Evergreen Cooperatives, a group of Cleveland companies that hire locally, allow employees to own a stake in the business and were designed in part to create wealth and jobs in poor neighborhoods. Rochester officials hope to kick-start similar businesses here.

Mayor Lovely Warren won't be on that bus Thursday, but she sees co-ops as a key piece of her strategy for fighting poverty, which she outlined in her State of the City speech last week as a major priority for her second year in office.

In an interview Wednesday, Warren detailed how she wants the initiative to work and how the city's efforts will square with a much broader state anti-poverty task force that is targeting Rochester.

"We didn't get into this situation overnight. We will not get out of this situation overnight," Warren said. "But my goal is to start getting the results that we need to show that we are on the right path and that we're changing this for our children, for our families, for our neighborhoods."

City Council voted Wednesday night to pay the Democracy Collaborative, a Cleveland nonprofit, up to $100,000 to help Rochester develop its own co-op plan.

About 15 people are going on Thursday's trip, including city staff, members of City Council and representatives of businesses, the Rochester Area Community Foundation, United Way, the Farash Foundation, Greater Rochester Health Foundation and the Wegmans Foundation.

Independent of city government, there already are some co-ops in Rochester, and local Green Party candidates suggested them as an economic development tool in the 2013 elections. This, however, appears to be the city's first concrete step toward embracing them for that purpose.

"It's really about empowering the community and residents to not only work in a particular business, but also to have ownership in that business," Warren said.

At first, effort will target one section of the city, rather than too big of an area, she said.

"We want to make sure that we have a model that is proven, can be replicated and that we have the support around that neighborhood before we move on to the next," the mayor said.

That focused approach may seem at odds with the more sweeping Rochester Anti-Poverty Task Force, a piece of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's 2015 agenda. The task force is supposed to better coordinate the efforts of dozens of local agencies and organizations that are supposed to help the poor.

But Warren argued that the city and task force efforts go hand-in-hand. The state can address aspects of poverty that city and county government cannot, she said.

For example, a working mother who gets a small raise might be cut off completely from a state-funded subsidy to help pay for child care. Warren said she hopes that the state will use Rochester as a pilot site to instead offer services like this one on a sliding scale.

The state also can help fill gaps that help perpetuate the cycle of poverty, Warren said. One local program helps new mothers until their children turn 2, but the system may not encounter that child again until he or she enters a prekindergarten program at age 4, the mayor said.

"We've just invested two years up front, and we've lost two years," she said.

As for the co-op initiative, Warren said the new businesses should not compete with existing ones, and they should offer services to local hospitals, colleges or nonprofits that are now being outsourced.

Details on what those services might look like — or what it might cost the city to launch them — are scant for now.

The city will look to marshal other services to strengthen and stabilize neighborhoods around the new co-ops, Warren said. For example, the city might use first-time home-buyer programs to encourage people who work in the co-ops to invest and stay nearby.

Ultimately, Warren said she sees poverty as part of the city's agenda on all fronts — jobs, crime, education and more.

"Everybody's road is different," she said of escaping poverty. "We have to build a system that recognizes that."