Ken Zaiken, an AARP Executive Committee member and Rochester resident, takes a stroll through Silver Lake Park along the Zumbro River. Photo by Jeff Brandt

By Mary Van Beusekom

A massive effort is underway to transform Rochester into an international destination, but its residents also want the city to become a place that’s more walkable, affordable and all-around livable for those who call it home.

AARP Minnesota is ensuring area residents have a voice as the 20-year, $5.6 billion economic development project proceeds.

The effort to establish a “destination medical center” includes a Mayo Clinic expansion and construction of new hotels, multifamily housing and shops.

AARP Minnesota is partnering with local groups to designate Olmsted County, where Rochester is located, as an AARP Age-Friendly Community, which means a commitment to certain principles of livability for all ages, such as access to health care, a robust public transit system and affordable housing.

AARP and local community-based group In the City for Good are surveying residents about what features of growth they’d like to see. The results will guide an action plan, according to Jay Haapala, AARP Minnesota community engagement director.

“Every community wants to be home to its residents for a lifetime,” Haapala said. “An aging population requires special considerations, but often older and younger people want the same things.”

Transportation and housing
Alternatives to downtown parking and more affordable housing are pressing issues affecting livability in Rochester, said Ken Zaiken, 63, a member of AARP Minnesota’s Executive Council and a longtime resident.

“The Rochester bus system is designed to get people downtown to work, but if you want to get anywhere else, you usually have to go downtown and switch buses,” observed Zaiken, a semiretired product manager and entrepreneur. “It could take you an hour and a half to get where you’re going.”

Regarding residents’ concern over affordable housing, Zaiken said, “If you want to live independently in a halfway decent place, you’re going to be spending $1,300 to $1,500 a month on rent. It’s not easy.”

Although Rochester is home to the Mayo Clinic, access to health care can still be an issue.

“Mayo’s got hundreds of different specialties, but if you talk about geriatrics, it’s kind of similar to other places,” he said. “There are a lot more seniors who need specialized medical care than can get it.”

Olmsted County is expected to submit its Age-Friendly Community application this spring, Haapala said.

When the five-year process is complete, the county will join Alexandria, Maple Grove, Minneapolis, Northfield and more than 300 other communities nationwide as part of AARP’s age-friendly network.

Olmsted County Public Health Services, Family Service Rochester, Olmsted Medical Center, the Mayo Clinic and multiple community groups are also involved.

“The things that age-friendly communities focus on are not just for seniors,” Zaiken said. “If you have better transportation, if you have better parks, seniors benefit from that, but so do a lot of other people.”

To learn more, visit aarp.org/rochester. For more information about the AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities, go to aarp.org/livable.

Mary Van Beusekom is a writer living in Excelsior, Minnesota.