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Anne (Erickson) Cotter

Destination Medical Center development plan begins taking shape

Officials overseeing the Destination Medical Center project, a multibillion-dollar overhaul of downtown Rochester, firmed up their development priorities on Thursday and sketched out steps to set them in motion.

Through 2016, the economic development agency tied to the project will focus primarily on two downtown sub-districts — Discovery Square, designed to be a hotspot for entrepreneurs, and the centrally located Heart of the City — as well as transportation infrastructure.

Each area of focus has been a key piece of the project since it began taking shape a few years ago with an eye toward reshaping Rochester and growing the city’s workforce by as many as 45,000. Now, three months after project organizers approved a sweeping development framework, they’re refining plans.

“We believe that this year is critical to really dig in deep, to paint a picture of where we want to be a year from now and what it’s going to take to get there,” said Jim Bier, president of the Olmsted County Board of Commissioners and a member of the Destination Medical Center oversight board.

Discovery Square from the get-go has been one of the project’s most visible initiatives, meant to expand a budding innovation economy expected to take off as the Destination Medical Center effort takes shape.

Situated near the Mayo Clinic, the square is designed to be a hub for entrepreneurs, businesses and other innovators — particularly those operating in the life sciences space.

Lisa Clarke, who heads the project’s economic development agency, began promoting Discovery Square at a biotech convention in Philadelphia last month. She plans to redouble regional, national and global recruitment through next year, at conferences and alongside Mayo Clinic.

“We know that Discovery Square is one of the gems, one of the critical areas of the [Destination Medical Center],” Clarke said, noting that the initiative is on schedule. “Our job, working with the Mayo Clinic and others, will be to truly identify and recruit these partners.”

Separately, project proponents will begin a push, built around a daylong informational event, to draw in private investors — a linchpin of the overall development framework. More than $5.5 billion in private investment is expected to roll in over two decades, including from the Mayo Clinic.

The project needs $200 million in private dollars before the state will release $327 million in matching funds. Through last year, the Destination Medical Center received private investments totaling $39.3 million.

Privately funded development is especially significant for the Heart of the City initiative, a localized revamp that hinges on public space and other upgrades to shape a gateway to Mayo Clinic and downtown Rochester.

Hospitality-oriented projects, including a hotel backed by private players, will underpin the effort, according to an outline presented to the Destination Medical Center board on Thursday.

By the end of 2016, Clarke is aiming to finalize early-stage priorities for developments in the sub-district and map out workforce strategies targeting the biotech, construction and hospitality industries.

In addition to repositioning Rochester as an international biotech hub, expansive development will make room for thousands more residents and visitors. The growth puts a bright spotlight on the need for a comprehensive transportation plan, a major area of focus over the next year.

Throughout the preliminary planning process, community members have urged officials to consider innovative transit. Transportation plans will fall mostly to policymakers in Rochester and Olmsted County, who so far haven’t dug deep into potential options.

The Destination Medical Center’s economic development staffers will help put contours around a comprehensive plan. Mayo Clinic will also make recommendations during the back half of 2016, according to plans.

“If we don’t get transportation right on the front end, we will always be catching up on the back end,” Clarke said. “It drives investment and it drives development.”

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