Eagle center director spreads his wings
WABASHA — Rolf Thompson is executive director of the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, but in the past few months, he joined a Journey to Growth committee in Rochester and is now a member of the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce board of directors.
The two roles, one with the eagle center in Wabasha, the others in Rochester, are not contradictory.
In fact, for him, the two roles — working with the center and its eagles and working with the Rochester groups — go hand in hand.
Rochester is in the early years of Destination Medical Center , a $5.6 billion vision using Mayo, city and state money to greatly expand Mayo's footprint in Rochester. It could mean 35,000 to 45,000 more jobs and hundreds of thousands more patients.
But where will the workers live? Where will the patients go when they have some time and want to get out of Rochester?
That's where Wabasha and the eagle center come in.
Wabasha officials see DMC as a major opportunity to get more people living there because it's an hour away. Not everyone wants to live in Rochester, leaders say. The city can offer the Mississippi River, its bluffs, tens of thousands of acres of nearby public land and an historic downtown. Wabasha leaders are eager to capitalize on the potential new residents.
It's not alone. Lake City and other small towns in Wabasha County are also hoping DMC will be a big boost for them, both for residents and visitors.
At the same time, the eagle center sees itself as something Mayo needs. It gets about 80,000 visitors a year from all states and 124 countries, Thompson said. Nearly 90 percent of visitors come outside a 30-mile radius.
"We are very much a part of the economy of Wabasha and the region," Thompson said.
As he was speaking, four people who took a cab from Rochester were touring the center. They probably were Mayo patients or family.
"That probably happens every day," Thompson said. "It's an incredibly uplifting experience to come to the eagle center" and see the eagles, it's almost therapy.
People need place for recreation. Thompson sees river towns as being a big part of that, with the Minnesota Marine Art Museum in Winona, LARK Toys in Kellogg, the eagle center and downtown Wabasha, Lake Pepin and the marina in Lake city and the historic downtown and riverfront in Red Wing.
They all "help to make our area a world-class region," he said.
The eagle center is looking to expand. It asked the Wabasha City Council to make sure it could use part of the land next to it where the city is looking to develop with a hotel or something similar. The council declined, saying it didn't want to restrict developers but some on the council said they hope the developer can work with the center.
The center is also looking to buy some downtown buildings or has leased them for its needs.
Thompson became the eagle center's executive director after working with non-profits for a few decades. He said he's always been a mission-driven person, he wants to have an impact.
Along the way, he realized that besides working with camps or other groups, he was also running a small business, so he earned a master's degree in business administration, learning to develop products, raise money and manage people.
The eagle center "is no different," he said. It's a non-profit, but it's still a small business. And to make that business flourish, it needs to look for more customers and more ways to meet its goal. Its mission is "To foster environmental stewardship and community sustainability through education about eagles and the Mississippi River watershed."
Joining Journey to Growth was a logical extension of that work because the center wants to attract more people, both for an economic boost as well as to educate them about eagles and their environment.
J2G's web page said it's "a five-year economic development plan created to ensure the future economic viability of our region. J2G will diversify and grow our eight-county regional economy beyond healthcare by focusing resources on other growth sectors, leveraging existing regional assets, and developing the regional talent base."
He's on the chamber board because of how important a market Rochester is for the eagle center, he said. Being on the board will increase the center's visibility, he said.
"In his this kind of business, it's also about partnerships and collaboration and being part of something that is bigger than the organization," Thompson said.