The second business she created in Aurora closes

While Rowland took over and destroyed the historic integrity and/or community character of the Fargo, the Inn, Macks (a.k.a. Dorie's), the local pizza joint (formerly part of our market) and even Mackenzie-Childs, she created ONE new business establishment in the village.

That creation, Posies, an awkward combination of a limited-service florist and over-priced gift-shop, shut down on 4/28/06 after two years in a building re-designed and re-located to Pleasant's specifications.

(Remember, we lost part of the parking lot when she moved Posie's south and expanded its garden; now she insists on demolishing our Post Office to restore the lost parking spaces.)

As this article makes clear, the closure is not part of a "transition." It is an outright failure -- rooted in her misunderstanding of our community and her senseless destruction of our village center.

On Labor Day 2007, Rowland's Pizzaurora -- shunned by locals and students alike for poor food and worse service -- carried a sign announcing it was closing "for the season." The only pizza place in a college town shuts down when school opens? Obviously, this is another miserable misfire by Rowland's much touted commercial genius.

Rowland doesn't pull out!

In early March 2006, the Syracuse Post-Standard churned out three articles in as many days about a story manufactured by Wells PR Director Rollo and Rowland's Spokesperson Katie Waller.

The Syracuse paper hyped a supposed "Rowland departure" from Aurora which was pure scam. Nothing here changed. The monopoly controlled by Rowland and Ryerson or their agents continued and later expanded.

(For analysis of the Syracuse newspaper's puff pieces listed below and the paper's miserable track record on this story, please see the Feedback Forum for early March, 2006. Then catch the paper making fun of our situation, and patting itself on the back for its great coverage of Aurora; in the link below.)

In June 2006, Rowland filed papers to open another business in our village on the very day she was reported to be "pulling out" of Aurora.

A year later, on September 4, 2007, she purchased one of the very few remaining non-Wells non-Rowland commercial properties in Aurora, paying more than 3.5 times its full assesed market value.
Rowland buys more of Aurora
Now owns everything in village center except P.O. and Library
Auburn Citizen, 9/15/07

Aurora to get new bed and breakfast
Rowland's resubmitted B&B proposal approved
Auburn Citizen, 6/15/06

Rowland revisits B&B plan for Aurora
Proposal is resubmitted to create a bed and breakfast in Aurora's Abbott House
Syracuse Post-Standard, 5/31/06

Joint Media Release from Rollo and Waller
Wells College Assumes Management of Village Properties
Aurora, 3/2/06

Rowland ceding more control to Wells College
School's subsidiary to get management of six businesses
Syracuse Post Standard, 3/3/06

Uncertainty in Aurora
Aurora Foundation's handoff leaves future unclear
Syracuse Post Standard, 3/4/06

What did she do to deserve this? * (see below)
Her uncompromising style bought her some enemies
Syracuse Post Standard, 3/5/06

The big news for three days running
Madison, Wisconsin eyes the story
The Capital Times, 3/6/06

Story on Aurora belonged in local section
Editorial staff praises Dave Tobin and makes fun of our village
Syracuse Post Standard, 3/10 & 3/11/06

*What did she do to deserve this?

Pleasant Rowland's $40 million remade a college town. Her uncompromising style bought her some enemies.

Sunday, March 05, 2006
Syracuse Post-Standard
By Dave Tobin, Staff writer

Spring 1995: Pleasant Rowland, riding the wave of her American Girl doll success, is back in her college town, Aurora. She surveys buildings she loved as a Wells College student 30 years before.

"If we could return this building to its original condition ... ," she said. "If I could ..."

As always, if Rowland can imagine it, it happens. She has spent an estimated $40 million in Aurora - buying a vital downtown, blocks of immaculately restored historic buildings and a more stable future for Wells College. Such remarkable investment might well be celebrated with a parade in some towns. Rowland got singled out in a parade, all right.

Summer 2005: The village's annual Aurorafest parade moves down Main Street. One float features a giant octopus. Each arm holds the name of a building or business Rowland restored. People wearing dive masks and snorkels sit, clipboards in hand - a mocking reference to Rowland and her assistants' attention to detail. Across the truck, a sign aimed squarely at Rowland's makeover: "Aurora has been Octopied!"

Since selling her business for $700 million in 1998, Rowland has given millions in charity around the country. But it is on Wells College and Aurora that she has lavished money and attention like a doting godmother.

She paid the bills and personally oversaw every aspect of her Aurora vision, applying the same control and high standards she used to create her American Girl doll empire.

Yet for all her investment, her work in Aurora generated resistance, mistrust and animosity. She is not comfortable walking down the street in the village she wanted to call a home.

Her uncompromising mission has fragmented Aurora: Those who love what she did. Those who hate how she did it.

"The whole social fabric of the community has changed, based on whether you support her or don't," said Mary Ellen Ormiston, a member of the Aurora Free Library board. "There have been really ugly things on both sides. The thing that always held the community together, regardless of socio-economic status, was everyone recognizing that people needed to pull together to make it work. That's unraveled."

How could so much generosity generate so much anger? Is it the result of the heavy hand of an outsider's power and money in a small town? Or is it a schoolyard envy of the bright, new girl too successful, playing by her own rules and too busy to just hang out?

Like the architectural facelift, such questions are part of Rowland's legacy to Aurora. On Thursday, her staff announced Rowland's plans to turn over her business properties to Wells by June 1 that her work here is mostly done.

Devil in the trees

For some, it started with the trees.

When she announced her first $2 million donation to Wells to renovate residence halls and public spaces, money was just part of her gift. She approved every shade of paint, every bit of fabric and every piece of furniture.

Rowland noticed Wells' ailing trees, grand old sycamores and oaks. She hired tree specialists and accompanied them around campus as they identified each tree by species, location and health. Some were pruned and fertilized, others removed.

Six years later, as her renovation work moved to Wells' commercial buildings off campus, Rowland recalled the graceful sweep of elms over Main Street, before Dutch elm disease eliminated them. Along both sides of the street by the Aurora Inn, she had planted more than a dozen mature, disease-resistant Chinese elms. She hired a Houston firm to move 100-year-old trees around the inn, so they wouldn't obstruct lake views.

That summer, a "Pleasant Dreams" float in the Aurorafest parade mocked her tree work. Men in hard hats sang to the "Hokey Pokey" melody: "You put your right tree in, you take your wrong tree out ..."

In five years, Rowland has spent on Wells College nearly as much money as the rest of the college's alumnae raised in their last capital campaign.

Nevertheless, some faculty have grumbled that Rowland cared more for appearance than substance. She was not funding new professorships, academic programs or scholarships. She was spending money to wash windows and buy plush sofas.

Her imagination and attention to detail could overwhelm and intimidate. They were the very qualities that had made her so successful, as a designer of an elementary school reading series and founder of the Pleasant Company.

"If you have a strong vision, you can't let any piece of its execution go. Everything has to be a '10,' " she told Fortune Magazine.

At Pleasant Company, Rowland was the test for every detail. "Do I like it?" was her criterion.

"Forget the focus group. Do what you believe in. Come from a place of heart. Come from a place of mission," she said of her business.

In 1992, Wells College was reaching for life support, its enrollment at 400 and falling. Then-president Robert Plane traveled to Madison, Wis., to enlist Rowland's help. Would she be a trustee? No, she wasn't the committee type, she told Plane. But she was concerned about Wells' declining enrollment and suggested a strategy for attracting young women: Make Wells prettier. Plane, a long-time professor at Cornell University, was taken aback.

"I had always thought the other way around," he said, "that facilities follow program."

'A treasure to protect'

From its earliest days, Aurora has attracted wealth and power. For centuries it was the seat of the Cayuga Indian Nation. Aurora was the first seat of a much larger Onondaga County.

The village is nestled at the foot of a glacial ridge, on the east shore and widest point of Cayuga Lake. That tempers harsh winters and accents the sun's rising and setting.

Henry Wells, a founder of Wells Fargo bank and the founder of Wells College, traveled the world but made Aurora his home. Edward Barber "E. B." Morgan, the college's first major benefactor, made a fortune in the railroad and corn starch businesses and lived his whole life in Aurora.

Rowland renovated two of Morgan's buildings owned by Wells: the Aurora Inn and Morgan's personal home. She made both into luxurious inns accessorized with marble bathrooms, chandeliers from Europe and paintings from her private collection.

Wells pervades village life. The college owns about a third of all property most is tax-exempt. Wells' enrollment adds 400 people to the village's non-student population of 720.

Village trustee GeorgeFarenthold is married to Wells President Lisa Marsh Ryerson. Mayor Tom Gunderson is Wells' superintendent of buildings and grounds. Assistant Mayor James Chase is Wells' director of custodial services.

Rowland, who attended Wells from 1958 to 1962, speaks of Aurora representing "values and traditions of another more tender time," of it being "a treasure to protect."

Of whose Aurora was she speaking?

In pursuit of partners

In her first speech to Aurora residents in 2001, Rowland proclaimed her love for Wells and Aurora, and pledged to help both by putting them on sound economic footing. Successful businesses would bring vitality to the village. A vital village would help Wells grow.

A consulting firm Rowland hired identified services and products village residents wanted. She promised to provide them, and she has: a new food market, a dock, bakery, deli food, pizza parlor, and a renewed and re-opened Aurora Inn.

She even rescued from bankruptcy MacKenzie-Childs, the nearby home furnishings company, saving some 250 jobs.

She said she would be "visible and accessible . . . personally responsible . . . for assuming an open and collaborative dialogue with this community."

What she needed were "optimistic, enthusiastic partners" essentially, people who agreed with her.

Rowland focused on Aurora's central block where, with village approval, she buried utility lines, planted trees, installed new sidewalks, and razed, moved and renovated buildings at a dizzying pace.

All of Aurora is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and opponents tried to use those preservation rules to challenge her in court. They lost.

When a contractor, Doug Wood, bought and began renovating a neighboring house-turned-commercial property, it seemed a breath of business diversity, the first in years that did not involve Rowland. Wood soon ran out of money and stopped work. Rowland approached him, provided a $300,000 loan and her architect. She asked that her involvement be kept private, Wood said.

Wood's renovation met no opposition, and Rowland was able to bring another corner up to her standards. Asphalt roof shingles became cedar. Aluminum gutters became copper. Concrete sidewalks became slate. A former garage became a neo-classiccottage.

The pledge to be accessible didn't last long. Rowland has made two public appearances in five years. She communicates through speeches and formal announcements, such as Thursday's. She would not be interviewed for this story.

The last straw

Rowland's Aurora Foundation LLC, a business with a philanthropic-sounding name, now runs nearly every business in Wells-owned buildings. Profits go to Wells College. If those businesses lose money, Rowland pays the difference, through her Pleasant Rowland Foundation a non-profit foundation.

The benefit to Wells is considerable. For years, the Aurora Inn had been losing big money. In the last year before Rowland arrived, Wells College lost $400,000 for maintenance and operating expenses.

The upgraded Aurora Inn now charges $125 to $350 a night, but the ink is still red.

"We're still running losses at the Aurora Inn," said Ryerson, the Wells president. "It will take some time."

As Rowland's influence expanded through the village, one oasis remained The Fargo, the village's only watering hole, a college-town version of Cheers. At The Fargo, housed in a Wells College building, people could vent and grouse.

Last summer, Rowland's management company took over The Fargo. It was the last straw for many.

"She couldn't bear to leave us with one little place of our own," said Judy Kenyon, Wells Class of '52, a creator of the octopus and tree floats.

Angry residents wrote passionate letters to Ryerson, the Wells trustees, newspapers and Rowland. Ryerson insisted the Fargo takeover was her decision, made in the best interest of Wells. Rowland was silent. With her one "enthusiastic, optimistic partner" Wells College she changed the Fargo.

"I am very determined," she told an interviewer in 1997. "If you get in my way and don't understand how important this is to me, you're going to think I'm brusque and tough and unfeeling. Because what I do here, I really do with a sense of urgency."

On the surface, little is different at The Fargo. Chili dogs increased 50 cents, Fargo Burgers with cheese, $1.50. The regulars say it lost something intangible.

What's left is Shakelton Hardware, a sprawling clapboard structure that has been a fixture on Main Street since 1926. It's across the street from Dorie's, a former general store that Rowland remade into a lunch counter/soda fountain/gift shop.

Shakelton's owner, Joe DeForest, has watched the changes and listened like a confessor to the grousing.

"When money's showered any place, is it really a gift, with no strings attached?" DeForest said. "I think of a gift I give my daughter. It's hers. What does she (Rowland) get from her gifts? Total control."

DeForest himself asked Rowland if she would buy his hardware store. She looked at his numbers and said no, he said. So he's continued to provide locals with clothesline, mousetraps and other miscellany, while becoming a kind of Rowland-free safe haven. People linger around his counter, exchanging stories.

"People tell me I should serve coffee," DeForest said. "But I know Dorie's manager, and I wouldn't want to do that."

Costly, storied dolls

Rowland, 64, is the oldest of four children. She grew up in the wealthy Chicago suburb of Bannockburn, Ill. Her father, Edward M. Thiele, was president of Leo Burnett, a Chicago advertising agency noteworthy for such legacies as Tony the Tiger, the Marlboro Man and the Pillsbury Doughboy. Her mother, Pleasant Thiele, stayed at home.

Rowland married into wealth. She met her second husband, W. Jerome Frautschi, through the publishing business. (Her first marriage, in 1963, was to Richard H. Rowland Jr., a Cornell graduate she met at Wells.) Last year, Business Week listed Frautschi as one of America's 50 most generous philanthropists. Most of his charity work has been done with Rowland in Madison, Wis., where he has given more than $200 million to build an arts center.

Frautschi's family owns Webcrafters, a leading textbook publisher. Rowland and Frautschi have no children, but she has three stepsons through her marriage to Frautschi.

Rowland made her first million developing reading programs for elementary schoolchildren and her first $100 million marketing dolls with morality tales "chocolate cake with vitamins," Rowland liked to say.

Pleasant Company made American Girl characters from various periods of American history. Each character had her own historically based story, relating adversities overcome and lessons learned.

The stories are wholesome, without cynicism. There are no bad parents. Difficult things happen. Through them, characters mature and move on, supported by family and friends. The dolls still sell for about $90. Accessories are extra: a miniature typewriter, $22 (for Kit, who wants to be a reporter), or a trunk for dolls, with mortise and tenon joints, $175.

"People think this is a rich girls' product line," she told Forbes in 1997. "This is not. There are little girls who save very, very hard and treasure what they get."

Before Rowland sold the company to Mattel for $700 million, the American Girl empire included dolls, accessories, books, a magazine, girls clothing, American Girl musical theater and American Girl Place, a Chicago retail mecca with a restaurant and theater.

As a corporate executive, Rowland was compassionate and generous. Hearing about a train accident that killed three girls and a mother returning from American Girl Place, Rowland set up a college trust fund for two surviving girls.

When she sold Pleasant Company, employees with 10 years of service received a bonus of one year's salary.

Rowland's own story is as carefully wrought as those of her dolls. Bits of autobiography her battle with breast cancer or her hip replacement are revealed in speeches and carefully chosen interviews. Memories of her father conveying life-lessons: "You should want from your life an arena big enough to express your talents."

Susan "Cookie" Wheeler knows Rowland's soft spot for nostalgia and memory, her obsession for having things just so.

After Rowland bought MacKenzie-Childs, Wheeler worked there in the restaurant's kitchen. One of her tasks was to recreate, without recipe, a morning bun that Rowland remembered from childhood. Wheeler made buns over and over, until she got it right.

"I'd make a batch of cinnamon buns, bring them in to her. She'd say 'It needs more cinnamon,' " Wheeler recalled. "Another batch. 'It's got to be more sticky.' Another. 'It's got to be able to unroll.' We worked through it until we came up with something close."

Even more remote

One autumn day when Rowland could still walk the streets, she surveyed Main Street buildings with an assistant. Suddenly, a woman was walking alongside her, yelling.

"You're wrecking the town!" the woman screamed. "Get the hell out of here!"

Lawsuits, protest signs, letter-writing campaigns and petty vandalism have come in the wake of Rowland's changes. The reclusive millionaire became more remote.

Opposition and criticism "affected her immensely," said Jean McGlynn, a Skaneateles designer who worked closely with Rowland. "It was difficult to understand. She was attempting to do something for the good of the community."

It is "tragic" that Rowland cannot be as comfortable in Aurora as she was before she began her work, Ryerson said.

Initially, Rowland showed up at community events and directly donated money to community organizations other than Wells. She signed books and gave away dolls at an Aurora Library fund-raiser. She hosted a fire department fund-raising dinner. She donated $75,000 to the village for the planned renovation of a village office and $15,000 for an ambulance. For several years she donated $5,000 to the Aurorafest setting for the octopus lampooning.

Rowland comes to Aurora less frequently now. Months can pass between visits. Her local giving has been institutionalized through her businesses.

Internet forums have burned with rants about her and rumors of her departure. As recently as January, her assistant, Katie Waller, denied Rowland was about to pull out. Then came Thursday's disclosure of her exit strategy.

Over time, Rowland had grown wary, if not weary, of unrelenting resistance to her plans.

In a recent deal orchestrated with Wells College, Rowland offered a March 31 deadline to approve permits for moving the post office to a Wells building she renovated. If the deadline is missed, the village loses 900 feet of lakefront property the college offered as incentive.

As she reduces her hold on Aurora, what is Rowland leaving behind?

Buildings in the heart of the village, rebuilt to last another 100 years. Wells College, freed of a financial burden, with a sophisticated business operation poised to earn the college profits. A $2 million cushion for the college's transition to self-sufficiency. Several hundred jobs saved and more (57 full-time and 69 part-time) created, with yearly payroll and benefits of more than $2 million. About $66,000 more a year in tax revenue from college-owned properties.

And for everyone, Rowland in particular, memories of an Aurora, different from the Aurora before Pleasant.

© 2006 The Post-Standard.


This page last updated September, 15 2007