Destination Medical Center, the ambitious, long-term initiative to transform Rochester into a “global center” for health care, is being overseen by an urban development expert who faced similar challenges in St. Paul during the 1990s.

Back then, Patrick Seeb, as leader of the nonprofit St. Paul Riverfront Corporation, saw an urban core that had lost its way, was shedding businesses at an alarming rate and saddled with a negative reputation. On top of that, St. Paul over the decades had turned its back on one of its greatest assets — the Mississippi riverfront.

This week, he was back in St. Paul to tout the “regionwide benefits” of Destination Medical Center (DMC) to members of the Greater St. Paul Building Owners and Managers Association. Seeb, now the DMC’s director of economic development and place-making, noted that it took much patience to get all of the St. Paul stakeholders to agree that things could indeed change for the better and to sign on to a long-term plan for tackling the situation.

“That’s one of the lessons I’ve taken from St. Paul to Rochester,” he said. “The timelines of these two efforts are similar at around 20 years. They also both involve weaving what are essentially hundreds of small development projects into a longer-term ‘greater good.’ And that’s the hard part since individual developers are focused on their own deadlines and priorities.”

As the leader of the St. Paul nonprofit from 1995 to 2015, Seeb’s job was to help produce several visionary urban design frameworks re-imagining struggling “places” such as the city’s downtown, riverfront and, eventually, the Green Line light rail corridor. The design group has been credited with spearheading downtown development in the early 2000s when the seeds of the current Lowertown neighborhood resurgence were first planted.

One of the results of that era was the construction of CHS Field, the home of the St. Paul Saints baseball team, which was where the building owners and managers group gathered Monday.

Seeb used the opportunity to make the case that the DMC and the $585 million in state tax dollars pledged to the city of Rochester for public infrastructure improvements will also benefit the Twin Cities economy.

Downtown Rochester, unlike St. Paul in the 1990s, is not facing an imminent crisis. But it is similar in that it needs to transform its image, even among its own residents. Rochester should exude confidence that it can be attractive to outsiders who in the past have dismissed it as too small, Seeb said.

“To help attract development investment dollars to a city of only 110,000 people, we are making the case that Rochester and the Twin Cities are part of the same regional economy, and it’s true,” Seeb said. “DMC helps position the whole state of Minnesota onto a global investment stage.”

To date, the DMC effort has attracted $489 million in private investment, with an additional $450 million in the pipeline. The most visible manifestation so far is the ongoing construction of One Discovery Square, a 90,000-square-foot office and research building developed and owned by Golden Valley-based Mortenson Construction. Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota, Rochester have been signed as its key tenants.

Seeb asserted the promise of DMC-funded public infrastructure and transportation improvements is also making Rochester more attractive to investors. This includes Bloom International Realty of the United Arab Emirates, which is planning a pair of towers on city-owned parking lots along the Zumbro River featuring condominiums, senior housing, hotel rooms and retail.

Meanwhile, California-based EKN Development Group is in the city approval process for two new-construction hotels. The company is also about to start a major renovation of the Holiday Inn Downtown, located at the high-visibility southern “gateway” into downtown from the Rochester International Airport.

 

Don Jacobson is a freelance writer based in St. Paul. He is the former editor of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Real Estate Journal.