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The Reluctant Tourists: Mayo Clinic Makes
 Rochester, Minnesota a Magnet for Millions

Josh Noel  Chicago Tribune - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

ROCHESTER, 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 why they come to this small city in southeastern Minnesota's rolling bluff country, where Midwestern friendliness is as abundant as fresh air.

It's all about the Mayo Clinic.

And that makes the Midwestern friendliness as key to local tourism as hotel rooms and restaurants. When locals ride past on bicycles on the sidewalk, they apologize. When waitresses say, "Have a nice day," they seem to mean it. There's even a downtown business called Honest Bike Shop.

"It's like the whole town knows there's something bad going on in your life and they want to make you smile for at least a moment," said Becky Wombwell, 46, of Macon, Mo., whose mother-in-law was in a seventh day of tests at Mayo. "Even in the grocery store."

Each year, nearly 3 million tourists swarm Rochester's downtown, almost three-quarters of whom double as patients or patients' families.

Medical tourism may not be sexy, but it makes Mayo one of the state's top tourist attractions, economically speaking. In 2000, the last year for which a figure was available, the clinic added $4 billion to the state economy.

It also brings a rare sophistication for a town of 99,000, such as the International Hotel, where drinks are free, wall art is hung to your specifications and rooms run as high as $3,000 per night.

But Mayo also lends Rochester a bit of an odd vibe. There are lots of eye patches. Hotels are so jammed with wheelchairs that lobbies look like octogenarian bumper-car arenas. One man guided his electric wheelchair through downtown with a dozen electrodes stuck to his head, colorful wires snaking from his gray hair. He fit in perfectly.

These people in the midst of trauma and fear meet in Rochester's least likely places, such as hotel laundry rooms. That's where Shirlean Ryan, 42, of Petty Harbour, Newfoundland, met a woman whose son was being treated for a rare form of cerebral palsy. Ryan was undergoing a long-awaited gastric procedure.

"We are just sharing stories and getting to know people from all over the world," Ryan said. "There's a lot of common understanding."

Mayo Clinic, which is actually a campus of downtown high-rises, attracts grandmothers from Missouri and sheiks from the Persian Gulf. Couples surviving on Medicare share hotels with sports-franchise owners, albeit on different floors.

The clinic drives the town, and small reminders are everywhere. The city's oldest hotel, The Kahler Grand, offers cancer patients a wig salon on its first floor. City Cafe, Rochester Magazine's reigning best restaurant in town, notes on its menu that it can prepare several types of fish without sauce or oil to avoid interfering with medical tests.

Many 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).

Not to mention that Mayo seems to employ everyone in town. If you ever get bored, try finding a stranger in Rochester who doesn't know at least one person working at the clinic. You can't.

The waitress' mom. The couple at the minor league baseball game. The rail-thin 13-year-old fishing by crossbow--yes, crossbow--in the downtown Zumbro River.

That 13-year-old, Logan Berge, said his grandmother "pushes people around in wheelchairs" at Mayo. He's a fan of the place.

"Through animals they found stuff that helps people," he said. "It's so cool. I heard there's monkeys in there."

No confirmation of monkeys, but if Mayo is Rochester's bread and butter, it's also the knife, the plate and the toaster. A downtown bank skips any pretense by hanging a huge banner out front that reads, "Welcome Mayo residents."

But if the local tourism board didn't try to change that, it wouldn't be doing its 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 too).

Their 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 local shops, long bike rides, touring a premier medical facility and an 11 p.m. bedtime make you happy, Rochester isn't bad.

The largely chain-restaurant-free downtown offers several admirable food options (see "If You Go"). There's plenty of well-prepared fish shipped in from the other side of the globe, inventive hamburgers paired with microbrewed beer and bright, tasty tapas.

There are several small, locally owned shops selling goods ranging from shoes to soaps and one of the coolest Barnes & Nobleses you'll ever see, inside a restored downtown theater where the original domed ceiling remains intact.

There's a pedestrian mall perfect for lounging, miles and miles of bike trails and, at the edge of town, Quarry Hill Nature Center, a pristine 320-acre park. The Spam Museum, a 16,500-square-foot ode to America's most revered canned meat, sits 40 miles southwest, and in the summer, a pleasant evening can be passed at a Rochester Honkers college summer league baseball game.

Tickets and beer are cheap, kids gallivant in the aisles with the team's fuzzy mascot, and shirtless young men sit with cans of beer over the right field wall on homemade bleachers--lumber stretched across the tops of ladders. It's so very America.

The couple I randomly introduced myself to at the game, Julie and Steele Faust, work at ... you guessed it. He's an administrator, she's a nurse. Julie, 48, said there is nothing strange about a downtown overrun with people in search of medical care.

"This is a place where you can be yourself and in your reality and be accepted," she said. "Everyone is proud of this town, and they want to show people why."

Rochester regularly appears on Money magazine's list of most livable cities, a designation that, if anything, probably implies a lousy place to visit.

And 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 bars.

But the trade-off is what makes the city so pleasant: cleanliness, safety and a worldliness reinforced in the unlikeliest places, such as hotel rooms where you find several Arabic television stations. Locals have become accustomed to burly guys in suits and sunglasses sweeping restaurants before visits by royalty or heads of state.

Smitha Dev, 24, who runs the gift shop in the Kahler Grand lobby, had to suppress shock last year while selling a pack of gum to Mukesh Ambani, one of the world's richest men.

Kevin Chmura, 40, and a friend almost literally ran into former President George H.W. Bush while turning a corner in a hotel recently. Security broke up the party before the men could get too friendly, but Chmura said his friend got a handshake.

"It was the closest I ever got to a U.S. president," said Chmura, who visits once a year for business. "It's about the last thing on your mind in Rochester."

It shouldn't be. High-profile visitors in the last few years have included Iraqi President Jala Talabani and now-deceased former President Gerald Ford (whom Bob 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 diagnosed with the disease named for him.

All of which happens only because of Mayo.

Rochester's first white settlers came in 1854, when George Head of Waukesha, Wis., staked a 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 name in New York. The Minnesota version quickly grew to become a county seat and railroad stop, and, in 1863, drew Englishman Dr. William Mayo to examine Civil War recruits.

After a tornado struck Rochester in 1883, killing 37 and injuring thousands more, Mayo and his physician sons started St. Marys Hospital with a collection of nuns. Their practice grew into the Mayo Clinic and forever changed the town's complexion.

The clinic takes its role as the city's cultural and historical touchstone seriously, offering two separate (and free) tours to the public. The more popular is an hour walk through the hospital's various buildings, including its 1928 European-style castle-like behemoth and the sleek Gonda Building, finished in 2001, which looks like an unlikely hybrid of a Ritz-Carlton, the U.N. headquarters and Radio City Music Hall.

The more interesting tour, though, is the collection of art that essentially makes Mayo double as the city's art museum.

On display are paintings and statues, works both tiny and massive, objects that spin and objects meant to be touched, pieces by Rodin and Miro. Among the most stunning are the snaking yellow-green-blue glass orbs crafted by Dale Chihuly that hang above a spotless foyer between the clinic and the parking garage.

It is many patients' first view of the hospital, and it is meant to reassure them that they are being treated by serious, passionate and creative minds who see the beauty in life. In a way, that foyer is a microcosm of Rochester--pleasant, high brow and, above all, civil.

"I come here once a year, and I'm always so impressed with the clinic and the 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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