As the $6 billion Rochester Destination Medical Center (DMC) project starts revving up, local leaders, businesses, and organizations from Winona to St. Charles are eagerly trying to prepare for the shifts it will bring. The time to act, they say, is now.
"I feel an urgency to get involved quickly," said Winona Mayor Mark Peterson last week. Behind him a roomful of Winona leaders buzzed with excited reactions to a presentation by a spokesman for the public-private partnership.
The goal of the DMC project, with $455 million from the state of Minnesota and billions more from the Mayo Clinic and other private companies, is "securing Mayo's economic future" and making Rochester a place that traveling patients will want to visit and a place where top doctors will want to live.
Across the region, local governments, colleges and universities, business leaders, and the health industry are all anticipating the impact of the DMC project, many of them already pursuing major expansion, improvement, and marketing projects of their own.
The specific changes that will be generated as part of the DMC project have yet to be developed, but big changes — including regional rail routes, high-tech industrial growth, and a Rochester performing arts center — are being discussed, to say nothing of the tens of thousands of new jobs and visitors the project has promised.
DMC law renews Rochester's bid for rail connection
"It's ironic" that in one of the final paragraphs of the DMC legislation is a portion that may be one of the most important to Southeast Minnesota, DMC Spokesperson Jerry Williams commented. That section requires the Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) to work with Olmsted County in analyzing "the feasibility of a high-speed rail connection between Rochester and the Mall of America" and Minneapolis-St. Paul.
High-speed rail stretching from Chicago to Minneapolis has long been a dream of states across the Upper Midwest. Despite the recommendations from an interstate rail consortium to select the River Route, a path that traces current Mississippi rail lines through Winona and into St. Paul, Rochester and Olmsted County have long lobbied for the high-speed line to come through their city.
The DMC law does not explicitly call for a direct Rochester connection as opposed to a spur off of the Winona line. Williams suggested that perhaps Winona would want to advocate for such a spur option. "Maybe those conversations should happen," Williams told Winonans. "Maybe that should be a consideration that's put in the transportation piece [of the DMC] plan."
While the DMC law does not explicitly call for a direct rail connection to Rochester, it does require Mn/DOT to specifically examine a route that would follow Highway 77. Far west of the River Route, Highway 77 runs from Minneapolis to Apple Valley. A rail line following Highway 77 could conceivably turn east to join the River Route, but that specific legislative directive may encourage Mn/DOT to reconsider the direct rail line to Rochester.
Mn/DOT examined the possibility of direct Rochester-Twin Cities rail connection in 2009, finding that studying a Rochester route further would "expose a rail project to time and cost uncertainties" while the River Route was shovel-ready. Mn/DOT also noted that Rochester lobbying efforts inflated ridership figures, and that the distance between Rochester and the Twin Cities was too short to realize the advantages of high-speed rail.
Advocates of the River Route have pointed out that the miles and miles of additional right-of-way or easements that would be required to forge a direct high-speed rail connection between Rochester and the Twin Cities would be far more expensive than following existing right-of-ways along the river.
The city of Rochester and the Mayo Clinic worked to rid their city of rail lines back in 2009, advocating for $325 million effort to route freight lines around the city and the clinic. Conversely, Rochester and Olmsted County's efforts to promote a high-speed rail connection to their city have stayed on course.
When asked about the legislative directive to study a Rochester high-speed rail connection, Peterson said that a spur would be preferable.
Arts, tourism, and transportation
Could Winona become the arts and culture destination for visitors and employees of Rochester's Destination Medical Center? Williams and local leaders suggested that such a path may be a golden opportunity for Winona.
When asked by Peterson about how Rochester plans to develop its arts scene, Williams did not offer hard-and-fast specifics but responded, "One of the things that we lack — I don't know if it's going to come out of this or not — is a magnificent performing arts center." Williams made it clear that Rochester needs its own performing arts center, but also made references to the wonderful facility at WSU and sedking for ways "to bond with" the Winona arts scene.
"We're going to build it up," Williams said of Rochester arts and culture. "But we're not going to start a Shakespeare festival."
Regarding the Great River Shakespeare Festival (GRSF), Williams advised Winona to aggressively develop and promote the festival. "Get your oar in the water on that thing," he said.
GRSF Managing Director Lee Gundersheimer called for a similar vision regarding the festival and Rochester's growth. Winona "can be their Greenwich Village," he said, during a recent meeting among Winona arts organizers on marketing Winona as an arts destination.
Outdoor recreation may be another key amenity for Winona to highlight and enhance in reaction to the DMC project, local leaders discussed. "The one thing we have that other communities don't is the Mississippi," said Winona City Council member Gerry Krage. "Winona is a great place to have a get-away weekend," one audience member noted. Williams agreed and urged Winonans to make plans for asserting themselves in that role.
Winona is also likely to benefit from the job growth spurred by the DMC project. "People who work in Rochester are going to continue living in Winona, St. Charles, Lewiston," but now there will be more Rochester employees joining those communities, Williams said.
In all three of those areas – arts, recreation, and "bedroom community" growth – transportation between Winona and Rochester will be key. Two buses a day currently shuttle Winonans who work in Rochester. "Part of the conversation that needs to take place is, 'Is that working well? Do we need to expand that?'" Williams told the crowd.
Williams noted that some of the small towns surrounding Rochester, which were given a portion of the DMC funding, used it to create "Park and Ride" facilities, or parking lots and bus depots for commuters. A rail connection to Winona could also aid in bringing Rochester visitors and employees to Winona, local leaders said.
Krage, Williams: Winona needs to plan, quickly
"We know Winona is going to play a major role, we just don't what yet," Krage said of the DMC project and the chaining dynamics in Southeast Minnesota. "There's already quite a few ideas, in this room even," Krage gestured to the local leaders milling about after Williams' presentation.
Krage and Williams both called for Winonans to develop a unified vision for Winona's goals in the DMC project and voice them in meetings starting next month.
"Before we go to piecemeal over to these Rochester meetings, we need to have a Winona planning meeting," said Krage. Winona needs to come together as a community and determine what its goals are regarding the DMC project, then push for those goals, he said.