EDITORIALS from the The Citizen of Auburn, New York

June 25, 2001

Time for some Pleasant talk.

Pleasant Rowland has remained, for the most part, a mystery. She's spoken publicly less than a handful of times, and despite promises that her newly-formed foundation will be open to listen to the concerns of all residents, few of us have seen or heard much outside of orchestrated public events.

There's no argument that Rowland's stated intentions are admirable. Here she is, coming back to the village of her beloved alma mater, willing to commit part of her $770 million American Girl doll fortune to improving the quality of life. She's partnered with Wells College, where she's already given tons of money, to form the Aurora Foundation to re-vitalize the village she has said "became a part of me like no place ever has."

Rowland made that statement at a May meeting at the Morgan Opera House, one of the very few times that she has met or spoken publicly with Aurora residents, the people who will be directly affected by what she and Wells College decide is best for the village.

And let's face it; because so many Aurora officials are college employees, Wells holds a great influence over the direction the village takes, and what becomes of the property the foundation has purchased. Mayor Thomas Gunderson is superintendent of Wells' buildings and grounds, and three of the four village trustees, as well as the chairs of various village committees, also work at Wells and have a vested interest.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, but because the connection exists, it makes communication, frequent and direct and from Rowland herself, all the more important. With sporadic, tightly-controlled appearances in Aurora, she isn't doing enough to make herself a presence in the village. True, she's been in town for a couple of meetings where she reassured residents she had their best interests at heart and had no desire to use her money to create, as one resident put it, "a Disney World."

But when she finally signed the paperwork and bought MacKenzie-Childs Ltd., she answered no questions, returned no telephone calls, and generally failed to assuage fears that jobs would be lost or the company's mission would change. And those fears are very real. One employee told us she was afraid she'd lose her job if she spoke with us.

So far, Rowland's openness only extends to her honesty in telling us who will do her talking for her. Wells spokeswoman Michele Berry has said Rowland never talks to reporters, and makes statements only through her spokeswoman, Katie Waller, who sometimes returns calls just to say she can't answer questions.

It seems the Aurora community is ready to embrace Rowland and her future plans for the village. But that trust will soon subside if she remains the figurehead of an empire, instead of a neighbor.

Sunday, July 8, 2001

The welcome delay in Aurora

The groaning wheels of the state bureaucracy are a welcome addition to Aurora's makeover at the hands of Pleasant Rowland and Wells College. Two state agencies have told the village it's moving too quickly in changing historic properties owned by the Aurora Foundation, a partnership of Wells and Rowland.

Now that state officials have told the village to put the brakes on, there's time for a pause so other opinions can be heard, assuming the village does indeed take a break.

Ordinarily, the sudden intrusion of weighty state agencies would be anathema to progress. But Aurora has barreled full speed ahead in a way that's worrisome since a significant number of village officials are also college employees. As we've noted before, Aurora's circles of power are so conjoined, it's unlikely that anyone there would wave a caution flag about Aurora's changes.

As it turns out, someone did, by contacting the state agencies to ask why they weren't reviewing the work. The state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and the state Department of Environmental Conservation answered by sending letters telling Aurora's Community Preservation Panel it had bypassed steps in the process and shouldn't have approved the projects just yet.

The DEC wants Aurora to adhere to the Environmental Quality Review Act, which among other things requires officials to explain a project's effects on its surroundings. The DEC's key official in Syracuse, Ralph Manna, had not received the plan to demolish some of the additions built onto the inn over the years. The Aurora Foundation had sent plans to historic preservation officials, but folks in Aurora inferred their lack of a response as acquiescence, which it was not.

With the entire village in a historic preservation district, changes to the exterior of buildings are, according to one interpretationof the law, subject to review. The state agencies want Aurora to delay demolition of the inn's additions and the neighboring Vanderipe Building, which houses the Aurora Market. Work inside the inn can continue.

No one accuses members of the Aurora Community Preservation Panel or the planning board of intentionally ignoring the agencies. But the village's lawyer sees the law differently than state officials do and has asked for a forum in which he can argue that the village did nothing wrong and that the projects don't merit the highest level of state review. That meeting is set for Wednesday in Syracuse.

Even if Aurora loses, the sky will not fall. It's just that more work will be done to make sure the projects make sense. Other experts can be heard and more arguments raised. Aurora's new vision has been delivered by Pleasant Rowland and embraced by Wells College, but that doesn't mean it's the right vision. Those lumbering state bureaucracies, in this case, might serve the village well.

Sunday, August 19, 2001

Aurora ignores its own history.

The Aurora Planning Board, in particular its chairwoman, has treated the state's preservation experts as if they were salesmen wasting their time about aluminum siding. She and the board this week showed them the door in a way that doesn't serve Aurora well.

State officials and a cadre of village residents, worried about the swift reworking of historic landmarks, had tried to urge caution. The state's preservation expert, Richard M. Lord, told village officials that changes described for the historic Aurora Inn were significant enough to trigger the state requirement for an environmental impact study. But village leaders chafed and squirmed and on Thursday night decided to approve renovations without further research.

Just as troublesome, the board�s chairwoman stifled discussion from any onlooker who didn't think the same way she did. "You've had four months for questions," Nancy Gil told those waiting to speak. "I'll have silence or you'll be asked to leave."

Naturally, there's plenty of excitement about the changes in Aurora. Pleasant Rowland, the millionaire dollmaker from Wisconsin, has pledged to invest millions into shoring up old buildings and forming a partnership with the Wells College she fell in love with as a student in the 1960s. The college, being a large stable employer, has the village by the lapels, and has convinced many officials, many of whom happen to be college employees, that they should be excited, too.

The power of Wells College and Rowland could all too easily squeeze out dissenting opinion and dictate the functioning of government, particularly the conduct of its planners. We don't think the college's highest officials would regret an obedient community marching to Rowland's drum. The people urging caution have been treated as silly worriers impeding the inexorable of progress.

There is nothing wrong with progress. No one should look askance at a community trying to improve itself. But there�s something more important than progress, pretty buildings or efforts to preserve a building's historic accuracy. It�s the protection of speech and the confidence that local government will make decisions on the merits, not at the direction of powerful forces.

In Aurora, state preservation experts have asked for further review of planned changes to a structure built in 1833. Once that work begins, there's no going back, so further study doesn't seem unreasonable.

Yet this week, the review was dismissed as not worth the effort. This is an important time for a picturesque village with a proud past. A little more caution, and a willingness to listen to dissenting opinion, would serve Aurora well.

Monday, November 12, 2001

OUR VIEW: Court case is over, but don't ignore the concerns

Wednesday, acting State Supreme Court Judge Robert Contiguglia dismissed the Aurora Coalition's lawsuit, clearing the way for extensive renovations to begin on the Aurora Inn. It will be the first project for the Aurora Foundation, the joint venture between millionaire Wells College alumna Pleasant Rowland and her alma mater.

Coalition members were concerned with the speed the Aurora village and planning board were moving at the behest of the foundation. And they were worried that the historic character of the building would be steam-rolled by the foundation's desire to make the inn more marketable and inviting.

Although Contiguglia dismissed the coalition�s lawsuit, it doesn/t mean the coalition's concern -- or skepticism regarding the Aurora Foundation -- should be dismissed as well. After all, the village did agree to go back and redo an environmental assessment only after coalition members complained it wasn't done right the first time.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Preservation League of New York State supported the coalitions lawsuit, and while there may not have been merit enough for court action, there are still questions regarding plans for the inn.

Catherine Waller, the foundation�s director and Rowland's spokeswoman, says its too soon to know what the foundation�s next step will be, or when the work will start. No matter what the plan is, it should be undertaken with caution, to build confidence that anything the foundation takes on will not change the goal of promoting Aurora without sacrificing its quality of life and commitment of history.

Part of the problem with the foundation, and Rowland herself, is an elusive attitude, particularly when explaining plans in a public forum. Rowland has worked hard to make herself personally inaccessible to the media, and much of the time Waller has not answers to questions that Rowland should be held accountable to answer.

She came into the project like gangbusters, attended one public meeting that she orchestrated, and expected the village to fall at her feet in grateful admiration for her willingness to be its benefactor.

Admittedly, it's her money and she should be the one to decide how it�s spent. But when it�s spent on things that could affect a the character of a municipality, then people have a right to expect her to be accountable.

One encouraging thing is that Rowland has taken up residence part-time in Aurora in a home on Route 90, so she'll be here to take a hands-on approach, and some personal responsibility regarding the renovation at the inn.

Hits and Misses

December 18, 2001

MISS: To the Aurora Coalition's inability to raise a $250,000 bond so it could continue blocking renovations to the Aurora Inn. The coalition, a small group of Aurora residents concerned about the swift pace of changes to the historic landmark, had sued to force a new governmental review of the project, which cleared the village's very low hurdle all too quickly. The coalition lost, then appealed and won a restraining order and an appeals court's promise to hear the case. The coalition had to post the $250,000 bond to continue blocking further renovations, in case the coalition lost and developers could prove the delay cost them money. Raising $250,000 proved too difficult. The coalition says it will continue the appeal, against the partnership of Wells College and millionaire alum Pleasant Rowland. But the Aurora Inn work will proceed much faster than the court.

Editorial Columnist: April 26, 2004

MY VIEW: Rowland should ease up in Aurora

By Judy Ducayne

The Fargo bar and restaurant has been run the past seven years by a man named Jim Orman, who moved back to Aurora so he could own and operate the business full-time. He thought his future retirement was secured after signing a seven-year lease with Wells College, the owner of the building.

The Aurora Foundation is an investors group that has spent millions of dollars renovating and helping Wells College purchase many properties in the village. With Orman's approval, they invested in the renovation of the Fargo, as well. Orman was happy with the changes that the foundation made in his business. Some of his suggestions were also used to improve the Fargo.

So when Orman heard the news that his lease would not be renewed, he must of felt side-swiped. After he built the business, the college plans to run the Fargo with all the same employees, while Orman is muscled out. Makes you wonder how long these employees will really be kept? Probably until the new business owners learn how to keep the business profitable.

Then off the workers go to the unemployment office.

There have been petitions, as well as village board members, who have protested to Wells College - and rightfully so. Some of these board members chose to see past their own self interest and decided to do what was right. They stuck their necks out for a citizen that they felt was wronged.

There was only one, George Farenthold, who wouldn't sign the letter addressing the foundation. It asked that the decision against Orman be reassessed. I wonder why George wouldn't sign it?

Well, the foundation's leader stated that the decision was not made by them but by Well's College.

Stay with me! Remember the guy who wouldn't sign the letter ... George Farenthold? He's an Aurora village board member and is married to the president of Wells College, Lisa Marsh Ryerson. George said he wouldn't sign the letter because he doesn't think it's the village's place to tell the college how to run it's properties.

I'm going to take a chance here. Do you think his wife, Lisa, would listen to him anyway? Looks like it's the other way around.

Do you mean to tell me that academia has entered the hated and despised world of business? Has the liberal champion of the little people, the downtrodden and the disadvantaged, sold out its so-called high road principles because there's a buck or two to be made? You bet!

This was a private business that leased a building from the college. The same building has been leased for the past 45 years but because this business was profitable, it's been sniffed out, targeted and taken over. You don't have to be an academic scholar to figure this out.

Staff Editorial: May 9, 2005

OUR VIEW: All is not Wells in Aurora.


Pleasant's shyness not an excuse for inaccessibility

It's the dream of every economic development official.

Someone from the private sector comes into the community and invests millions of dollars to refurbish buildings and rescue dying businesses. As a result, more people start visiting. Sales tax dollars increase; property values go up, and best of all, the investor seeks no government handouts in return.

How could anyone have a problem with that?

In the village of Aurora, philanthropist Pleasant Rowland's work has elicited a chorus of opposition.

Certainly there are people in Aurora who praise what Rowland (a Wells College alumna who made a fortune creating the American Girl line of dolls and books) has brought to the village. But a growing number view Rowland's work as an unsolicited attempt to sanitize their historically rugged community.

It seems this resentment will only grow unless Rowland walks away, and that would be a disaster for Aurora, which until a few years ago, was like many other floundering upstate New York villages.

But there is another option for Rowland, and it's remarkably simple. She could start communicating directly with the community.

The most frequently heard complaint about Rowland has been her lack of accessibility. She speaks almost exclusively through other people, and won't address any criticism. Katie Waller, the Aurora Foundation's executive director, explains that Rowland is extremely private and communicates through Waller and the foundation.

Rowland may be private, but she has chosen to make very public real estate purchases in the village through her foundation. She can't have it both ways.

Rowland may be shy, but her approach comes across as condescending. She's an out-of-state resident (her permanent home is in Wisconsin) who has more decision-making power than anyone else in the village, and yet she refuses to talk with those who disagree with her.

Rowland should show up at a few village meetings, look people in the eye when she explains her decisions and ask for feedback from residents. Waller can still be Rowland's eyes and ears in Aurora on a day-to-day basis, but Rowland needs to speak for herself.

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