As we enter the second spring of the COVID-19 pandemic, many have voiced concerns that our city is on the verge of experiencing some challenges and reduced activity as businesses leave the heart of downtown and employees continue to work from home for the foreseeable future.
For decades, both Rochester and the State of Minnesota have dedicated amazing effort and funding to support tourists (mostly Mayo Clinic patients), community members, and employees (working and living downtown) to experience our walkable and safe downtown. Together, we have made good progress toward creating one of the finest downtowns in America, and this is why I believe we should view this crucial time in our city’s life as an opportunity.
The Mayo Clinic is our local economic engine. It has been — and remains — an amazing partner to Rochester businesses. For years, Mayo has leased or owned space downtown; it has filled street-level locations with offices simply because Mayo Clinic desperately needed capacity for support services and business operations. Mayo’s appetite for real estate has been amazing, and we are thankful for that.
However, we have become complacent in thinking this would always continue. With the paradigm shift of employees working from home or part-time at the office, we should expect that businesses – including Mayo – will be re-evaluating their real estate needs.
Rather than a crisis, I choose to look at this as an opportunity.
For example, our Rochester downtown has not reached the critical mass of amenities to become a competitive draw capable of competing with other cities or malls. It is time to innovate. Street-level space within buildings can be activated with businesses offering vibrant entertainment, dining and shopping opportunities for visitors and locals. The intersections of 1st Avenue and Second Street and Broadway and Second Street are ideal for new, original businesses to bring people to the heart of our city and create vibrancy on our streets that naturally attracts more of the same.
I understand that some may say this is easier said than done. And while COVID-19 has affected how we work and live, we will continue to build. I’m suggesting the city offer incentives to attract the types of unique small businesses we need for our available spaces. The funds previously used to commission surveys, studies and plans may be obsolete considering the real estate shift we are seeing and will continue to see. Instead, let’s deploy DMC funds or local incentive packages in new ways. DMC funding is earmarked for infrastructure and, as we all know, the definition of infrastructure is expanding. I believe this targeted approach will match that new definition. Let’s deploy funds in the form of incentives directly to the source of Rochester’s need – invigorating street-level and new businesses at areas like 1st Avenue and Second Street and Broadway and Second Street.
Now is the time to step up, not walk away. Let’s support the hardworking, dedicated and creative people who have remained downtown; welcome those who return; and celebrate those who set up new shops. We love Rochester. I say … “Let’s Fund Them!”
Hal Henderson is principal and vice president for HGA architects and engineers. He has worked in the Rochester area for more than 35 years.