Norton: Communication remains key for DMC efforts

April 2, 2019

When Kim Norton was elected Rochester mayor in November, voters also gave her a seat on the Destination Medical Center Corp. board.

The board was created in state legislation to provide oversight of state tax dollars going into the 20-year economic development initiative. It’s legislation Norton helped create in 2013, when she was a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives.

Now, with a new seat at the table as the board’s vice-chairwoman, we asked for her thoughts on the effort.

Has DMC met your expectations?

I don’t think it’s far enough along yet to answer that. I think the design, the ideas and the concept of making downtown a more livable, walkable, entertaining place for people who live here and visitors is certainly evident in the design work, but those are conceptual. We just have to wait and see how it plays out.

Where do you see it in the next five years?

Certainly, there’s been a lot of focus on the Heart of the City (subdistrict). I’m interested personally in the Discovery Walk area, heading out to Soldiers Field. That will be a real plus for residents in the community, where we activate an area for socialization and utilizing our park a little bit more, as well as for employees and visitors in the downtown area.

Once One Discovery Square opens, I think we will see a more robust growth in business and economic vitality in downtown.

How can more of Rochester become involved or see a benefit?

It’s a difficult thing to address. This was an economic development package. It was the result of primarily interviews with staff and patients at Mayo Clinic, and it was meant to solve some of that dilemma that people who stay here longer need more to do.

I see it as something bigger than that. You are fundamentally changing the core of a community, and it really also needs to be good for the community. How you communicate that is always a challenge, and as DMC rolls out … if it’s done well and you activate it as it becomes available, so people come down, see it and become a part of it, that’s maybe more of an opportunity.

How do you sell DMC to people who still have doubts?

I think communication is a big part of this and activating the areas and doing community engagement so people can experience it will be helpful and probably crucial to its success.

As I’ve said all along, I hope the vision concept that this is a livable downtown, and it’s not just a sterile cement and building area — we have to make sure people understand that and we actually do what we say we were going to do and envisioned.

What are your goals as a DMCC board member?

Just providing a standard board role will be important. I think what I bring, though, is a perspective of someone who heard the messaging about what an economic development boon this will be for our community and what an asset for Rochester, and certainly for Mayo Clinic as it grows. I can have an eye for if we are fulfilling that or if we are veering off, and if so, what is the justifications for doing so.

What do you see as the upcoming challenges for DMC?

I think we still have a need to make the community more supportive and aware of the DMC economic development opportunities. There is still apprehension out there.

While the DMC EDA may focus on communication to the outside world to interest people, I think perhaps there needs to be more of an eye on communication within the community and why this is beneficial and how to understand the promise it brings for generations that live in our community, not just in the industry, but in the more robust business world.

What do you see as the upcoming opportunities?

I’m really excited for what it can do to have a walkable, livable and sustainable community and also how we can activate the waterfront. I think that is something many of the cities I’ve visited in the country and world are doing.

Activating the water area of town really does a lot for the community and socialization. We haven’t really done that here in town. It’s a minor waterway, but I think we can build it up.

Is it unfolding at the proper pace?

You are starting to see it now. The first few years were frustrating, I think for everyone, but you are really starting to see things.

I would like to see more of the public realm space come to life, because I think that will be real to people who aren’t going to have a business in One Discovery Square, but who might see that area activating storefronts and new businesses that they may want to go visit, that it is walkable and green and not just a cement jungle.

It takes time to do these things. Just as we’ve talked about affordable housing taking five to six years from concept to realization, a project this big is going to come in bits and pieces and it’s going to take a while to feel like an organized, planful area.

I know that’s difficult for people; it’s difficult for me, too.

Is there anything you wish had been different in the legislation guiding DMC?

As we were working on this legislation, the DMC EDA was in law as a private entity and I wish we would have described that more robustly, because what I see is a lot of the city, county and state tax dollars going to support the organization. I’m not saying it’s not important, but it was my intention — and I think the Legislature’s intention — that the money went into the projects, went into the infrastructure and into the pipes under the roads that aren’t sexy but really need to be done. ...

It frustrates me to see so much of that money going to an EDA, an organization, to pay for activities and people. It’s important work — I want to be clear on that — but it was our intent that that would be paid for privately. I understand that the city needed to start it rolling, because you can’t start something rolling without an initial investment, but I really wish we had been much clearer that after the initial investment the city would peel away from spending its money in that way, and instead would spend the money on actual infrastructure.

So you’d prefer that the EDA form a revenue source?

Absolutely. The Mayo Clinic has done some, but they felt very strongly that they did not want RAEDI to be the EDA. They wanted their own; they did not think these businesses with medical devices or whatever businesses came to town wouldn’t want to deal with the city or deal with RAEDI. They would want to deal with someone with a direct link to Mayo.

I get that, and ultimately we thought that made sense. I would have liked working with RAEDI more closely, even in physical space, but it’s there and they are working together,

But I envision them finding developers and others in the community to fund that organization, not as I said — except for that initial $20 million that was part of the initial sales tax — I didn’t see the city having a role in funding the EDA organization.

Has DMC had any unintended consequences?

Some people worry with the growth and development being too focused on high-end development without an ear on how this well affect people on the low end of the spectrum financially. Are we going to create a bunch of low-paying jobs, maybe in the service industry, that will exacerbate a problem, whether it be affordable housing or whatever, that we already have in the community.

That’s the one thing that comes to mind.

What do you think is the biggest unknown aspect of DMC?

I think we still fight the same old misunderstanding that this is Mayo’s money. I’ve said it before and the Post Bulletin has covered it before, but this is not money for Mayo. This is money for the city to support the growth and economic development that Mayo and other new businesses — billions of dollars of new development and businesses — would need in this community.

I just don’t think people understand. … Communication is so important, and it’s so hard to reach people now. People use some many different venues and avenues to get their information, and as hard as we try we still seem to have a lot of gaps in that.