St. Charles' bold plans to capture Mayo growth


by Chris Rogers

If the clinic's projections prove true, it may be decades before the 35,000 jobs promised by the Mayo Clinic's Destination Medical Center (DMC) project are realized, but St. Charles feels the urgency now to prepare for the potential growth. "How do we get ready for DMC?" City Administrator Nick Koverman asked local leaders. When the new hires go looking for a country home or a small town getaway, which community will catch their eye? Could city-wide Wi-Fi seal the deal? St. Charles needs to be ready before the would-be residents and tourists come calling, Koverman said.

"It's huge for us," Mayor Bill Spitzer said of the DMC project. "We're looking at ways that we can attract those potential employees." He told fellow local leaders at a DMC-focused strategy meeting, "The sooner we start thinking about DMC, the better off we'll be."

From Stewartville to Pine Island, Rochester satellites are jockeying to win the hearts and tax dollars of the potential residents. That promised growth has spurred rival "bedroom communities" to plan for significant investment.

"We're looking for that niche," said Koverman. "How do we differentiate ourselves from other communities?" Recreation, education, and quality of life were the focal points for city leaders hoping to woo new residents. The St. Charles City Council and School Board met in rare joint session earlier this month to discuss big potential changes, including city-wide Wi-Fi, pedestrian infrastructure, a city-school partnership for new athletic fields, and active marketing.

New ballfields at SEMMCHRA site?

At the joint meeting, Superintendent Mark Roubinek said the district is in need of new athletic fields. Baseball and football fields are sufficient for now, but the district "may be behind the eight ball" to plan for providing more space. Spitzer proposed a joint effort to buy part of the troubled "South Fork" public housing development to build new ballfields and connect it to the city with walking and biking paths.

The publicly-funded Southeastern Minnesota Multi-County Housing and Redevelopment Authority (SEMMCHRA) borrowed funds to prepare 38 lots for affordable housing in the "South Fork Development," but so far it remains largely undeveloped. "Can we get some development out there by removing those two manmade mountains we have there and incorporating some athletic fields?" Spitzer suggested, referring to the dirt piles left over from site preparation.

City Council member John Schaber pointed out that adding parks at "South Fork" might help SEMMCHRA sell its properties. Others noted that SEMMCHRA, which has made its financial struggles public in recent years, may welcome the additional income from such a sale. Spitzer, however, cautioned that as the DMC project brightens the outlook for the St. Charles housing market, SEMMCHRA may be less inclined to sell its property.

School Board member David Kramer supported the idea, saying that a walkway leading out to the proposed park would make a great entrance to town.

"As a city, it might be too large a project for us to do on our own," Spitzer said, hinting at the possibility of a cost sharing arrangement for the project between the city and the school district.

Trails, sidewalks, and Safe Routes to School

Making it easy for children to get to school will be crucial to impressing young parents. The high speed limit and lack of a good pedestrian crossing along Highway 14 and the St. Charles High School has long frustrated school officials and local residents. Kramer likened students crossing the highway to "playing Frogger." The Minnesota Department of Transportation proved inflexible on the speed limits, city officials reported. St. Charles, however, will be reapplying for Safe Routes to School grants to fund designs for an overpass or tunnel. The city has not been successful in past applications. Cost estimates from past years indicate that an overpass would cost $350,000 or more and a tunnel would cost slightly less.

"As a walker, the thing that would make me feel the safest is a sidewalk," said School Board member Bernadine Stevens of walking on certain sections of the highway. "I feel vulnerable."

Who is going to maintain new sidewalks, asked council member Wayne Getz. "Is it going to be the senior citizen that has 100 feet of frontage?" He continued, "Is the school district going to maintain that? The city?"

That is a serious issue, said Kramer. "Are you familiar with the city of Goodview?" he asked his fellow officials, referring to that community's decision not to accept grant funding for sidewalks because of residents' concerns about maintaining them.

City staff also presented conceptual drawings for pedestrian-friendly changes to downtown: curb bump-outs at crosswalks that would encourage traffic to slow, more parking spaces, redeveloping aging buildings, and a permanent shelter for the farmers market at Ninth Street and Whitewater Avenue. Better pedestrian crossings along Whitewater Avenue would improve access to the elementary school, city leaders said.

St. Charles already has big plans for walking and biking trails to loop around the city and to connect to the nearby Whitewater State Park. As the city seeks to brand itself as a recreational hotspot to DMC hires, trails and sidewalks will become even more important, local leaders said.

Community Wi-Fi

"The employees of the future are all holding one of these," Koverman said, holding up a smartphone at the joint meeting. Koverman mentioned a recent online assignment that local teachers gave students; the teachers did not know whether their students had internet access at home, however. If some people do not have access to the internet, "we are creating a society of haves and have-nots," he said. Koverman advocated a local response to what he described as a broad social problem. "We need to take care of that; we need to close that gap, put that information in everybody's hands."

It is not just about social justice, though. Providing the amenities that young families want, including quality technology-driven education, will make a big difference in attracting residents to the city, he said. St. Charles currently offers free city Wi-Fi at and around City Hall and at City Park. Koverman championed a proposal to extend public wireless internet to the entire city.

Marketing and events.

"There are always going to be people looking for something to do, but they're not going to just come to town if they don't know about" local events, Spitzer said. St. Charles needs to boost its self-promotion, local leaders agreed. Council members expressed support at the meeting for hiring a part-time marketing professional. Spitzer said the council is now also considering outsourcing the work to a marketing firm. The group suggested targeting ads at Mayo Clinic employees through the medical center's internal publications. However it is done, the city will need events and advertising to capture would-be visitors, residents, and tourists, local leaders agreed.


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