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Expansion of Rochester airport under consideration

Rochester officials are zeroing in on expansion at the local airport as part of a campaign to transform the city into a go-to spot for more than patients at its world-renowned Mayo Clinic.

The board overseeing the Destination Medical Center project—a massive, multibillion-dollar effort to reshape downtown Rochester—heard from airport officials and toured Rochester International Airport on Thursday to get a better sense of how the airport can factor into redevelopment goals.

Over the next two decades, the downtown build-out, anchored by Mayo Clinic, is expected to beef up Rochester’s workforce by as many as 45,000 people. Plus, it coincides with a push to make the city more accommodating for tourists, in line with Boston, Baltimore and Houston.

“As things continue to develop here in the community, we’re doing our best to keep pace with everything else that’s going on,” John Reed, the airport’s executive director, told the board at its monthly meeting.

The facility is a gateway for out-of-town business people looking to cash in on the city’s growth, and transportation is a foundational element of Rochester’s expansion plan.

Already, developers from elsewhere in the United States and abroad have sniffed out opportunities in the city, which is under a brighter spotlight since officials earlier this year approved plans for the sprawling downtown build-out.

Airport officials recently kicked off a $3 million effort to revitalize its jet bridges, a project Reed billed as a natural lead-in to bigger changes. The upgrades improve access for large aircraft, including planes that bring Mayo Clinic patients or business people from as far away as the Middle East and Asia.

The airport currently services commercial flights to and from Minneapolis, Chicago and Atlanta, but that roster could expand to include cities to the west as passenger numbers tick up and interest heightens in Rochester projects, Reed said.

Private investment and development will carry the Destination Medical Center, which is in line to receive $327 million in state funding after it rakes in $200 million in private money.

“We have to bring in the private funds first before the public monies are freed up,” board member Bill George, the former CEO of Medtronic, said at Thursday’s meeting. He pushed for a focus on marketing Rochester with a focus on tourism.

With an eye toward its international travelers, the airport could take on terminal modifications that brighten up customs offices in fall 2016. It will also focus on accommodating larger aircraft and driving interest abroad.

But there’s growth potential in the local marketplace as well, Reed said. Airport officials figure there are 1.7 million prospective travelers living within a 75-minute drive from the facility – exposing significant untapped market potential.

The number of fliers passing through the facility rose 6 percent last year over 2013, according to airport figures. Around 13 percent of commercial passengers came from outside the country, an indicator of the broad cross-section of people heading to Rochester, Reed said.

Cargo volumes, meanwhile, jumped 25 percent in 2014.

“The economic impact to the community, I think, is tremendous,” Reed said.

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