11-07 mayo civic center 01.jpg

An $84 million expansion of the Mayo Civic Center is indicative of the investment people (and governments) are willing to make in the city.

Economic interest in Rochester and the fruits of the Destination Medical Center initiative fueled the year's top stories in local government: Hundreds of millions were spent on commercial and residential real estate developments; outside money reached into local elections; and urban influences clashed with historic neighborhoods.

If 2016 was any indicator, the city and the surrounding region are in for the same — and much more — in the year to come.

"Rochester has certainly reached a new threshold, I think," Rochester City Council President Randy Staver said. "I think in many respects, we still think of ourselves as a small town, but clearly because of the things we're doing, because of our economic strength, we are generating a lot of interest."

That interest was manifest in what was likely the most expensive election cycle in Rochester's history. It was certainly the highest spending cycle in the past decade, according to a Post Bulletin review of city records. Two races topped $80,000 each in spending by supporters, campaign teams and outside interests.

Outside spending gave the election a different flavor. Attack ads run by an independent spending group in Ward 2 more closely resembled national tactics than small-town campaigning. Some worry that the big spending and negative ads might scare away potential candidates in the future.

Real estate interests were closely tied to the election issues. City council candidates debated preservation and development issues, and when independent expenditures entered the races, a large portion came from the National Association of Realtors Fund. A local Realtor representative, Karen Becker, told the Post Bulletin in October that the candidates who received political spending support would "do the best job to protect property rights and encourage growth in Rochester."

It is likely that economic interest in Rochester will continue to drive political interest, as well.

"Whether you like it or not, I think that will increase in the coming years. It's just reflective of what Rochester has accomplished and our potential," Staver said.

Rochester's potential

What is fueling the economic interest in Rochester? The city's potential is laid out in hundreds of pages of publicly available planning documents: the DMC Development Plan. Based on the promise of continued investment in Rochester by Mayo Clinic and public investment to match, developers have set their sights on the city.

On its website as of Friday, DMC was tracking 14 "active" commercial and residential building and renovation projects in the district, together worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

"We are very pleased with the private sector's continued interest in Rochester and the DMC District to pursue projects that are consistent with the vision of the DMC Development Plan," said Lisa Clarke, DMC Economic Development Agency executive director.

"We are excited for 2017 as several significant construction projects will be moving forward in Rochester, including the Alatus project in St. Mary's Place and the Mortenson project in Discovery Square," Clarke said.

While each new development is good news for DMC and the economic development agency, local governments have a broader responsibility to the public. Government has a responsibility to pursue the well-being of all of its citizens, not necessarily the economic interests of a few.

"I think that is part of the effort that you're seeing take place across the entire government is making the initiative successful for everyone," city council member Nick Campion said.

"And that certainly means helping to make the economic initiative successful, and it also means broadening the scope to make sure we're defining successful in terms of the entire community."

In terms of local governance, the challenge to turn economic interest into positive outcomes is not about adapting, Campion said; it is about making the right investments.

"I think I really look at it as opening some opportunities to take a look, again, at what has made Rochester successful and reinvest in those parts of our community that we all cherish," he said.

As Staver said, Rochester might still think of itself as a small town. But can that quixotic vision live on in the reflection of a booming economic center? A change in identity, it seems, is inevitable.

"It's a pretty exciting time in terms of things that are on the horizon or potentially on the horizon," Staver said. "And that means change, and change is sometimes uncomfortable, and I think we just have to work through it together."

What's your reaction?