Monday, June 1, 2015

Who is Leah Puffer and why is she saying those terrible things about Rochester?

"It isn't clear yet what the Destination Medical Center will mean to the Twin Cities metro area," says Leah Puffer, a Minneapolis-based urban planner. "Rochester is often seen as a peripheral city, just far enough away from Minneapolis and St. Paul that it doesn't have the feel of a competitor. I think many individuals in the Twin Cities are still unaware of the amount of investment and potential development in Rochester as part of the Destination Medical Center. Most people still see it as a sleepy, small city with a great hospital and clinic." 
- Neal Ungerleider, "The 6.5 Billion, 20-year plan to transform a American City," Fast Company

Well, first off, Leah Puffer isn't saying terrible things about Rochester.

I don't know how it was that Neal Ungerleider came to interview Leah Puffer for his recent Fast Company piece on Destination Medical Center, but it was Leah, not Neal, who deigned refer to Rochester as a "sleepy, small city" and, in doing so, irked some local readers.

Maybe Ungerleider came across Puffer at where she has published several pieces including this one last October, "Can the Medical Center make Rochester a Real Destination?" wherein she writes:
Many people in the Twin Cities see Rochester the way people from New York City or Los Angeles might see the Twin Cities: a quaint outpost, a sleepy little town on the prairie. To a degree, that is true. But Rochester is an important piece of the cultural and economic life of Southeastern Minnesota – it’s the region’s largest city, it employs thousands of people from the surrounding counties and it is a social, commercial and cultural hub.
Feel better? She feels the irk of those who find irksome references to Rochester as a "sleepy, small city". It seems the Twin Cities suffer the same sad indignity at the hands of bigger cities on both coasts.

Since local journalists also wonder whether outsiders who commit journalism about Rochester have actually been to Rochester, Puffer comes by her observations by way of observation:
I grew up in a small town outside Rochester and Rochester was where we went for movies, fancy dinners, and school shopping and my mom has worked at the Mayo Clinic for over 30 years.
So, yeah. She's been here. She's seen here. And she has very nice things to say about here.
Rochester is often on annual lists of best places to live. The typical data points for these types of lists include median family income, crime statistics, employment rates, quality of schools and access to other amenities. No matter how much weight you give such designations, there are some people who value them a great deal. Rochester is home to the fantastic Rochester Art Center. New restaurants, like Downtown Kitchen, create reasons to go downtown after business hours and are upstaging the chain restaurants in strip malls. There are historic sites, Mayowood being the best known, and many of the Mayo complex buildings are something to behold, housing an extensive art collection donated by benefactors and a Mayo Clinic museum. For nature-lovers there is Silver Lake and Olmstead County has many parks, one of my favorites being Oxbow Park & Zollman Zoo.
See, she even references those lists Rochester gets itself on. Even though those lists may be the result of voting for ourselves or click-baiting by people who may have never "actually set foot" in our city, we still have some great data-points. (Oh yes, sadly, Downtown Kitchen is now part of the history of Historic Third. More's the pity.)

But, here is where Leah Puffer has DMC, and all that it has come to mean, dead to rights:
Many of the things that make the Cities a tourist destination cannot be planned and executed in the course of 5 or 10 years on a similar scale in a city like Rochester. We may take that for granted, but it’s all too apparent when considering Rochester’s options. The built environment can be planned and improved upon (there are cranes in the sky in Rochester, so that is already happening), but things like cultural corridors, institutions such as the Walker, diverse communities and the unique character of neighborhoods are not planned – they’re historical, they’re sometimes organic, sometimes accidental, but usually aren’t part of a bonding bill or funding legislation. (Rochester has these things too. There’s no denying the character and culture of Rochester, but they’re not as easily translated into marketing materials and brochures.) Tourism can be tricky in this regard – you want a vibrant city, full of life and beauty, but you don’t want it to be a plastic, medical Disneyland.

So, who is Leah Puffer?

Her LinkedIn summary says she is:
... seeking a position in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area in the field of urban planning. My focus is in economic and community development, specifically affordable housing and microfinance programs. The great benefit of a planning degree is that combined with my professional experiences, my opportunities for employment are not limited to work that is planning-specific. I am also open to work at foundations, lending institutions, universities, non-profits and regional housing and finance agencies.
She is "seeking a position in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area" not in Rochester. Too bad. She seems to have what we need some of down here.

What do you suppose it would take to entice her to return to the "big city" of her childhood?  Isn't that one of the nuts DMC hopes to crack?

Here's the question we should now be asking: "So that's Leah Puffer ... why isn't she seeking a position in Rochester?"

(Full disclosure: It appears I have a 3rd degree connection to Leah Puffer on LinkedIn which means I could be hearing from Neal Ungerleider any time now.)

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