City Of Hope

The Mayo Clinic draws people to Rochester, Minn., but it's the citizens who charm them

December 21, 2008|By Josh Noel | Josh Noel,Chicago Tribune

ROCHESTER, Minn. - 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 local residents 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 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 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. 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, the board begs, come here for any reason other than Mayo (but come for Mayo, too).

The board's 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. There are several small, locally owned shops selling goods ranging from shoes to soaps and one of the coolest Barnes & Nobles you'll ever see, inside a restored 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.

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