A visit to Rochester, home of the Mayo Clinic, always seems to result in a new vocabulary word to learn. Last week it was “seconded,” which means to loan an employee.

It would take an awfully rich organization to decide to loan an executive like Lisa Clarke to the Destination Medical Center (DMC) Economic Development Agency (EDA), the group in charge of enhancing Rochester as a global destination for medical care, and of course it is. Her employer is the Mayo Clinic.

Clarke also chairs the board of the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce, but as a volunteer assignment Mayo doesn’t fund. The new interim president of the chamber is Kathleen Harrington. She was from Mayo, too.

All of this was pointed out recently in a Rochester Post-Bulletin editorial calling the “optics” of Clarke’s various roles bad for Rochester and its economic development efforts, as there are already plenty of reasons to think of this city as just another company town where only one voice really matters.

Clarke has an opinion too, of course, about her employer’s ties to local civic institutions.

“It’s great,” she said. “Mayo does a great job creating a culture that allows for its staff to volunteer in the community. They want this community to succeed.”

Volunteering at an organization isn’t the same thing as running it, of course, and getting elected board chair at the chamber might just reflect this group’s confidence in Clarke’s leadership. She would get my vote.

So the term “company town” doesn’t seem to quite fit, and not because any organization that provides about 35,000 jobs in a city of 114,000 isn’t clearly the beating heart of the economy. Company towns got their bad reputation when the big employers veer from not just bossing people around to taking advantage of them.

The DMC initiative — a giant, 20-year development program — seems to have been set up to keep that from happening. The project is about Mayo’s future, of course, but it’s not really being run by Mayo. Its governing board of eight has a seat for just one Mayo Clinic representative, usually a volunteer member of its board of trustees.

The operating group for DMC, the nonprofit EDA Clarke leads, has three Mayo executives on its seven-member board.

Clarke certainly came across last week as an enthusiastic advocate for Rochester and Mayo. Her job at the EDA calls for that, of course, but after a couple of hours with Clarke it became obvious her faith in Mayo was bone deep.

The interesting thing, however, is that it was easy to hear plenty of support for Mayo Clinic from business people in town. At a minimum the terms “we” and “our” were used in a way that blurred the lines between those who work with patients at Mayo and those who work in a Rochester business.

As Rochester restaurant operator Tessa Leung pointed out last week, in Rochester you either work for Mayo Clinic or once did, or a family member or neighbor does. Or, of course, it could be all of the above.

She’s a caterer and operator of Grand Rounds Brewing Co., a microbrewery and pub, after having worked herself at Mayo. And Grand Rounds is a term that comes from classic training in medicine.

The conversation with Leung was arranged by the Chamber, as a funky gastropub a couple of blocks from the heart of the Mayo Clinic campus sure seemed like a sign of progress in the ambitious DMC project. This initiative could ultimately mean up to $585 million in taxpayer funding gets invested to build out parking, hospitality and other infrastructure to improve the appeal of Rochester for visitors.

From the beginning, the DMC project had the support of the business community, Clarke said, as “most businesses understood that this thing can only be good for them.”

Clarke summarized the DMC plan of all the good things that could get built, yet her pitch to out-of-towners is the Rochester as it exists right now, its neighborhoods, geography and civic life.

She has a good point. Mayo rival Cleveland Clinic is the pride of northeastern Ohio, yet the neighborhood around its home in Cleveland was described this year in Politico as “barely livable.”

Clark and her staff led a walking tour around downtown last week past obvious signs of progress, like a Hilton hotel now under construction and the site of a bioscience office building that will break ground in less than a month. Yet the tour also illustrated just how much work lies ahead.

A great example is the pedestrian mall that ends at the back side of the modern main Mayo Clinic building. To get inside you now must walk around a busy turnaround circle for cars. At the other end of the plaza there is a Wells Fargo building that could charitably be described as in need of a refresh.

Meanwhile, much of the life on that block stays underground, in basement-level walkways known in Rochester as the subway. That’s where visitors will find a Caribou Coffee shop. In Minneapolis there have been complaints about how the street has been drained of its vitality as people stay one level up in the skyways, but in Rochester there are fewer people spread over three levels.

To Clarke, not enough people on the street downtown is just an additional challenge that someday will be overcome. Meanwhile she’s happy to point out restaurants like Grand Rounds that weren’t open a few years ago.

And the founder of Grand Rounds, Leung, said additional restaurants that opened in recent years seem to be enjoying brisk customer traffic, both with locals and with visitors to Mayo Clinic.

“Our business in Rochester is helping people; it’s about making people feel better,” she said. “I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”

Lots of cities Rochester’s size have one employer dominating the local economy, she said, and in Rochester it happens to be a world-renowned medical center. “It could be a coal mine,” she said.


lee.schafer@startribune.com 612-673-4302