Can the Medical Center make Rochester a Real Destination?

rochesterMany people in the Twin Cities see Rochester the way people from New York City or Los Angeles might see the Twin Cities: a quaint outpost, a sleepy little town on the prairie. To a degree, that is true. But Rochester is an important piece of the cultural and economic life of Southeastern Minnesota – it’s the region’s largest city, it employs thousands of people from the surrounding counties and it is a social, commercial and cultural hub. I grew up in a small town outside Rochester and Rochester was where we went for movies, fancy dinners, and school shopping and my mom has worked at the Mayo Clinic for over 30 years.

Oh, Rochester is also home to the Mayo Clinic.

But most of us don’t see Rochester as a destination the way the Twin Cities are destinations. It’s still Rochester, a quiet city with that impressive medical facility. Which is what makes the proposal for the Destination Medical Center (DMC) so fascinating – we get to see to how Rochester sees itself in the future. Rochester is taking the unconventional step of declaring itself a tourist destination and then pledging to build itself into the destination it needs to be, and it is doing so while omitting nearly all mention of its Twin Cities neighbors.

The way Rochester sees itself through proposed developments and investments is ambitious and hopeful and reflects the reality of competition for a city whose primary industry is medical services. The Mayo Clinic is a major player in attracting the best medical talent from all over the world, drawing high-profile patients and serving as a respected research facility. Of course people should want to come to Rochester because the Mayo Clinic is considered a great place to get specialized treatment. But a famous name and a great clinic are no longer enough as national competition for mobile patients and highly skilled employees is increasing. Rochester has to fight to keep its status as a medical destination by reimagining itself.

Rochester is an economic force, to be sure – the Mayo Clinic is the state’s largest private employer with about 41,000 employees and annually contributes about $9.8 billion to Minnesota’s economy. There is broad political agreement about Rochester’s value in the state’s economy.

An important part of economic stability for cities and regions is knowing what you’re good at, but not relying too heavily on that alone; be sure to play to your strengths, but also diversify. Rochester is really good at hosting a world-class medical center, but the City recognizes that it needs to do more.

Unlike Cleveland, with its competitor Cleveland Clinic, Rochester is not on a Great Lake, it isn’t home to a Rock and Roll Museum and it doesn’t host a professional sports team. No, there isn’t a mall with rollercoasters inside, there isn’t a large and well-endowed university associated with the clinic (like Johns Hopkins in Baltimore) and the other thing that people who aren’t from Minnesota will immediately notice is that it is not on a beach. That makes it sound pretty grim, competition-wise. One Minnesota tourism site, Go Minnesota, only musters a meager, “there is enough to see and do around Rochester to keep busy for a day at least.” While not a ringing endorsement for Rochester as a destination, this brings us back to what Rochester has to build upon.

Rochester is often on annual lists of best places to live. The typical data points for these types of lists include median family income, crime statistics, employment rates, quality of schools and access to other amenities. No matter how much weight you give such designations, there are some people who value them a great deal. Rochester is home to the fantastic Rochester Art Center. New restaurants, like Downtown Kitchen, create reasons to go downtown after business hours and are upstaging the chain restaurants in strip malls. There are historic sites, Mayowood being the best known, and many of the Mayo complex buildings are something to behold, housing an extensive art collection donated by benefactors and a Mayo Clinic museum. For nature-lovers there is Silver Lake and Olmstead County has many parks, one of my favorites being Oxbow Park & Zollman Zoo.

Beyond that, Rochester has to turn to some of its neighbors for that extra oomph. Luckily, Southeastern Minnesota is home to beautiful state parks and weekly festivals in the summertime. The Rochester Convention and Visitors Bureau (in its optimistically named Rah Rah Rochester, Experience Rochester guide) encourages tourists to visit Amish country, local wineries, even the SPAM Museum in Austin. One thing notably absent from Rochester’s newest materials aimed at tourists is any mention of the Twin Cities. Other than pointing out how easy it is to get to Rochester from MSP there is no talk of the Cities or anything you, as a tourist, could do there.

Rochester is declaring independence and taking a big step by standing by their existing product and committing to building a broader destination around it. And it’s understandable that Rochester would like to venture out from under the Twin Cities’ shadow. For years the Twin Cities metro area has been the recipient of millions of dollars in investments – public and private – and is home to the types of institutions and attractions that take years to build and develop. Rochester can’t really spare years in this fight.

Many of the things that make the Cities a tourist destination cannot be planned and executed in the course of 5 or 10 years on a similar scale in a city like Rochester. We may take that for granted, but it’s all too apparent when considering Rochester’s options. The built environment can be planned and improved upon (there are cranes in the sky in Rochester, so that is already happening), but things like cultural corridors, institutions such as the Walker, diverse communities and the unique character of neighborhoods are not planned – they’re historical, they’re sometimes organic, sometimes accidental, but usually aren’t part of a bonding bill or funding legislation. (Rochester has these things too. There’s no denying the character and culture of Rochester, but they’re not as easily translated into marketing materials and brochures.) Tourism can be tricky in this regard – you want a vibrant city, full of life and beauty, but you don’t want it to be a plastic, medical Disneyland.

What you can do, if you’re Rochester, is whatever it takes to make your city competitive as new developers scout the area. This means Rochester wants to be a more than just a medical destination – competing with Cleveland, among others – it is also positioning itself to potentially compete with the Twin Cities for economic development as well. It will be interesting to see how the image of Rochester changes, regionally and more broadly, and how much the DMC contributes to regional competition for tourist and economic development dollars in the future.

Leah Puffer

About Leah Puffer

Leah has a Master's degree in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of New Orleans. She lives in Minneapolis.