Rochester is Going Green

“Going green” is a hot trend these days. Everybody’s talking about it. But how many are actually doing it?
When it comes to local governments, the answer is not as simple as it might seem. Does putting a solar roof on the fire hall make Rochester green? How about building a community garden? Installing charging stations for electric cars? Planting trees?
The city of Rochester is doing all of those. City Manager Jaymes Vettraino said going green is a balancing act, especially in a time of shrinking revenues. He said the city is making great strides without spending a lot of money.
“We understand city council’s aversion to saying we’re going to spend $50,000 to turn every light bulb a different way,” he said. “Especially with the fire hall, they requested a tight business case.”
Mayor Jeff Cuthbertson agreed. “With the exception of our curbside recycling program, we’ve been approaching green programs on a case by case basis, making the business case for each,” he said. “If there’s a modest sum (to be spent) with a good business case attached, I suppose I would look at that. I don’t think the city is in a position to spend money.”
Though there is no green master plan, the mayor said he feels the city has “actually accomplished a fair deal in the last three years or so.”
The movement seems to have begun in the private sector. Vettraino credits restaurateur Mike Plesz, owner of the Rochester Beer Company and the short-lived Mind Body Spirits, for getting the ball rolling. Both restaurants were built in historic buildings. Mind Body Spirits had geothermal wells and a greenhouse, used many reclaimed materials, sourced its foods locally and organically and generated a lot of buzz.
“The greenest thing you can do is take an old building and reuse it,” Vettraino said. “There got to be a feel in town.”
Another leader was Marilyn Trent, owner of a local graphic design business. She asked the Downtown Development Authority to form a Green City committee. The committee has brought recycling back to the downtown commercial district, added bike racks downtown and conducted educational and awareness campaigns at the farmers market.
Trent said more than 200 people stopped by one day to learn about native plants. “It was amazing; who would have thought that?” she said. “Those are the kinds of things we like to discover and share.” The committee also serves as liaison with the city for what has become an annual green fair, which is put on by a private group.
“We like to be a spearhead and a resource for business in our district,” Trent said. “As a volunteer committee, we have found that sometimes we can’t do as much as we like, but we do take small steps.” They do so “without proselytizing,” she added. “It’s not government regulation. So until then, we encourage people.”
In response to the foreclosure crisis, city council brought back the City Beautiful Committee. The CBC was involved in establishing a community garden, which has nearly all its spaces filled in its first year. The garden beds were built with dead trees from Dinosaur Hill Nature Preserve and the wood chips came from city trees.
Most recently, the city won a $25,000 grant from DTE to install two electric car charging stations downtown. Drivers will put coins in to purchase electricity, just like they would to purchase parking.
When Main Street is rebuilt next year, the city will install LED lights in all the light poles. When word got out, some subdivisions that pay for their own street lighting got on the bandwagon and will replace their own lights to reduce electricity consumption.
The list goes on and on and includes attention to everything from storm-water treatment to building codes to even changing the city’s printing font to save ink.
Vettraino said his entire staff is thinking green. These days, they have to.
“We don’t just ask for funding for projects anymore,” he said. He’s proud of all that has been accomplished without spending city tax dollars.
“We’re in a mindset you just think how can we do it in a way that is cost-effective and sustainable,” he said. “It’s a cultural view that I think the private sector, city council and city staff and department heads choose.”
Cuthbertson said he expects progress to continue through modest steps. He’d like to see more city-owned buildings improve their energy efficiency.
“When we have 18-24 months of business case on the solar project, if the numbers bear out, I don’t know why we wouldn’t do that again,” he said.
Vettraino will continue to look for opportunities that won’t break the bank.
“If we look to last year’s budget, there’s no budget for charging stations, but we’re going to have them,” he said. Ditto for the community garden and a bio pond installed near the Clinton River. “If you had asked me last year at this time, I would have said, nah, we don’t have anything going on besides the fire station. I’m real proud of that.”


  1. Marilyn Trent says

    Great article Annette,
    You really covered so much of what Rochester is doing to become more eco-friendly. It is so good to get the word out so more people can come on board.

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