Josh Noel Chicago Tribune -
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
Minn. - November 28, 2008 - --It's the town full of tourists who don't
want to be here. Because who
wants to get sick? Who wants to watch a loved one slip away? But that's
they come to this small city in southeastern Minnesota's rolling bluff
where Midwestern friendliness is as abundant as fresh air.
about the Mayo Clinic.
makes the Midwestern friendliness as key to local tourism as hotel
restaurants. When locals ride past on bicycles on the sidewalk, they
When waitresses say, "Have a nice day," they seem to mean it. There's
even a downtown business called Honest Bike Shop.
like the whole town knows there's something bad going on in your life
want to make you smile for at least a moment," said Becky Wombwell, 46,
Macon, Mo., whose mother-in-law was in a seventh day of tests at Mayo.
"Even in the grocery store."
year, nearly 3 million tourists swarm Rochester's downtown, almost
of whom double as patients or patients' families.
tourism may not be sexy, but it makes Mayo one of the state's top
attractions, economically speaking. In 2000, the last year for which a
was available, the clinic added $4 billion to the state economy.
brings a rare sophistication for a town of 99,000, such as the
Hotel, where drinks are free, wall art is hung to your specifications
run as high as $3,000 per night.
also lends Rochester a bit of an odd vibe. There are lots of eye
Hotels are so jammed with wheelchairs that lobbies look like
bumper-car arenas. One man guided his electric wheelchair through
a dozen electrodes stuck to his head, colorful wires snaking from his
hair. He fit in perfectly.
people in the midst of trauma and fear meet in Rochester's least likely
such as hotel laundry rooms. That's where Shirlean Ryan, 42, of Petty
Newfoundland, met a woman whose son was being treated for a rare form
cerebral palsy. Ryan was undergoing a long-awaited gastric procedure.
are just sharing stories and getting to know people from all over the
world," Ryan said. "There's a lot of common understanding."
Clinic, which is actually a campus of downtown high-rises, attracts
grandmothers from Missouri and sheiks from the Persian Gulf. Couples
on Medicare share hotels with sports-franchise owners, albeit on
clinic drives the town, and small reminders are everywhere. The city's
hotel, The Kahler Grand, offers cancer patients a wig salon on its
City Cafe, Rochester Magazine's reigning best restaurant in town, notes
menu that it can prepare several types of fish without sauce or oil to
interfering with medical tests.
downtown hotels are connected to the clinic by an enclosed sky bridge
(particularly handy in the frigid winters) or by an underground
"subway" (that doesn't actually feature a train).
mention that Mayo seems to employ everyone in town. If you ever get
finding a stranger in Rochester who doesn't know at least one person
the clinic. You can't.
waitress' mom. The couple at the minor league baseball game. The
13-year-old fishing by crossbow--yes, crossbow--in the downtown Zumbro
13-year-old, Logan Berge, said his grandmother "pushes people around in
wheelchairs" at Mayo. He's a fan of the place.
animals they found stuff that helps people," he said. "It's so cool.
I heard there's monkeys in there."
confirmation of monkeys, but if Mayo is Rochester's bread and butter,
the knife, the plate and the toaster. A downtown bank skips any
hanging a huge banner out front that reads, "Welcome Mayo residents."
the local tourism board didn't try to change that, it wouldn't be doing
job. That's why the city's motto is "More than you know." Please,
they beg, come here for any reason other than Mayo (but come for Mayo
latest attempt is to cash in on the burgeoning "girlfriend getaway"
market, touting Rochester's restaurants, clean, safe streets and
shopping as a
perfect weekend escape for a group of women.
It may not
be ideal (why not travel another 80 miles to the Twin Cities?), but if
shops, long bike rides, touring a premier medical facility and an 11
bedtime make you happy, Rochester isn't bad.
largely chain-restaurant-free downtown offers several admirable food
(see "If You Go"). There's plenty of well-prepared fish shipped in
from the other side of the globe, inventive hamburgers paired with
beer and bright, tasty tapas.
several small, locally owned shops selling goods ranging from shoes to
and one of the coolest Barnes & Nobleses you'll ever see, inside a
downtown theater where the original domed ceiling remains intact.
pedestrian mall perfect for lounging, miles and miles of bike trails
the edge of town, Quarry Hill Nature Center, a pristine 320-acre park.
Museum, a 16,500-square-foot ode to America's most revered canned meat,
miles southwest, and in the summer, a pleasant evening can be passed at
Rochester Honkers college summer league baseball game.
and beer are cheap, kids gallivant in the aisles with the team's fuzzy
and shirtless young men sit with cans of beer over the right field wall
homemade bleachers--lumber stretched across the tops of ladders. It's
couple I randomly introduced myself to at the game, Julie and Steele
work at ... you guessed it. He's an administrator, she's a nurse.
said there is nothing strange about a downtown overrun with people in
is a place where you can be yourself and in your reality and be
she said. "Everyone is proud of this town, and they want to show people
regularly appears on Money magazine's list of most livable cities, a
designation that, if anything, probably implies a lousy place to visit.
indeed, some singles who move here to work at the clinic complain that
Minnesota's third-largest city is a bore, absent clubs and late-night
trade-off is what makes the city so pleasant: cleanliness, safety and a
worldliness reinforced in the unlikeliest places, such as hotel rooms
find several Arabic television stations. Locals have become accustomed
guys in suits and sunglasses sweeping restaurants before visits by
heads of state.
Dev, 24, who runs the gift shop in the Kahler Grand lobby, had to
shock last year while selling a pack of gum to Mukesh Ambani, one of
world's richest men.
Chmura, 40, and a friend almost literally ran into former President
Bush while turning a corner in a hotel recently. Security broke up the
before the men could get too friendly, but Chmura said his friend got a
was the closest I ever got to a U.S. president," said Chmura, who
once a year for business. "It's about the last thing on your mind in
shouldn't be. High-profile visitors in the last few years have included
President Jala Talabani and now-deceased former President Gerald Ford
Dole visited). Jordan's late King Hussein was a regular, and it was in
Rochester way back in 1939 that baseball legend Lou Gehrig was
the disease named for him.
which happens only because of Mayo.
first white settlers came in 1854, when George Head of Waukesha, Wis.,
claim on the land because of its spot on the Zumbro River. He named it
Rochester because it reminded him of his hometown, the city of the same
New York. The Minnesota version quickly grew to become a county seat
railroad stop, and, in 1863, drew Englishman Dr. William Mayo to
tornado struck Rochester in 1883, killing 37 and injuring thousands
and his physician sons started St. Marys Hospital with a collection of
Their practice grew into the Mayo Clinic and forever changed the town's
clinic takes its role as the city's cultural and historical touchstone
seriously, offering two separate (and free) tours to the public. The
popular is an hour walk through the hospital's various buildings,
1928 European-style castle-like behemoth and the sleek Gonda Building,
in 2001, which looks like an unlikely hybrid of a Ritz-Carlton, the
headquarters and Radio City Music Hall.
interesting tour, though, is the collection of art that essentially
double as the city's art museum.
display are paintings and statues, works both tiny and massive, objects
spin and objects meant to be touched, pieces by Rodin and Miro. Among
stunning are the snaking yellow-green-blue glass orbs crafted by Dale
that hang above a spotless foyer between the clinic and the parking
many patients' first view of the hospital, and it is meant to reassure
that they are being treated by serious, passionate and creative minds
the beauty in life. In a way, that foyer is a microcosm of
high brow and, above all, civil.
come here once a year, and I'm always so impressed with the clinic and
town," said Phyllis Moberg, a sprightly woman in her 70s from Marshall,
Minn. "It has feeling. It has character. It feels good to be here."
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