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Development, money and tension dominate Rochester council races

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Rochester city council races are drawing attention.
Rochester's real estate market is drawing lots of investment from developers, and so are the city council races -- even though they're non-partisan.
Catharine RIchert | MPR News

In Rochester's northwest corner, resident Bob Yanish opens his front door to find City Council president candidate Sean Allen asking what he's most concerned about. 

"I suppose the growth," Yanish said. "Growth is good, it just has to be done the right way."

Yanish echoed a fundamental tension playing out in Rochester. The Destination Medical Center effort is expected to create 30,000 new jobs in two decades, and attract billions of dollars in new development. Already, at least six high-end apartment buildings have opened or broken ground in the downtown area in the last year. 

But some residents are startled by the pace and troubled by the process. 

City council candidate Sean Allen
Rochester city council candidate Sean Allen in August, 2016.
Andrew Setterholm | Rochester Post Bulletin File

Allen said he too wants to see Rochester expand. He is a real estate developer himself. But other developers are in a land rush and the City Council is too deferential to them, he said.

"It's causing the rest of the community to say 'wait a minute. Is this about developers? Is it about Mayo Clinic? Or is our community about us?' And I think it's about us," he said.

Those strains are playing out routinely in city council meetings, as neighborhood groups and developers who want to build big projects or multi-family housing in residential areas battle over seemingly minute details. 

Allen says the city doesn't have a good way to balance those competing interests. 

"Every single project is contentious and it's tearing our city apart, in a lot of ways," he said.

And with Rochester's real estate market drawing lots of investment from developers so are the city council races — even though they're non-partisan.

Long-time 4th Ward councilman Mark Bilderback said it's a stark difference from previous elections.

"I've gotten more developers than I've ever had donated before," he said. 

Deep-pocketed supporters would never sway his vote on a project, Bilderback said. But with so much at stake for developers in Rochester, he understands why people like him are getting more contributions. 

For instance, records show that the adult children of local real estate mogul Javon Bea have contributed a total of $2,600 to Bilderback and others. Both children live near the Twin Cities, and declined to elaborate on their donations.

But in a meeting this week, their father made it clear that patients coming to Mayo Clinic are his top priority — not local residents. According to a recording provided by the Rochester Post Bulletin, Bea said he's not interested in catering to "the yuppies that are living on the outskirts of Rochester."

"What keeps this town more than just a dumpy little Midwestern town of 110,000 are the patients and the people that come with the patients to Mayo Clinic," he said.

The stakes are drawing large political contributions from well beyond Rochester. On the advice of the local realtor's association, the National Association of Realtors is spending a combined $30,000 to help commercial realtor Scott Hoss unseat an incumbent, and to re-elect city council president Randy Staver.

Randy Staver addresses a small group following a DMC EDA meeting.
In this March 16, file photo Randy Staver, president of the Rochester City Council addresses a small group following the DMC EDA meeting at the Marriott Courtyard in downtown Rochester, Minn.
Scott Jacobson | Rochester Post Bulletin File

And Minnesota's Future, a statewide political group that typically spends money to elect Republicans to state-level offices, is spending $44,000 on the same races. 

To put that in perspective, Staver spent roughly $10,000 on his 2013 race.

And though real estate and Republican interests clearly prefer him, Staver rejects the criticism that the council is too close to developers. 

"Because we are local government, we are always going to have connections. It's something we have to be cognizant of, making sure we are making unbiased decisions, that we are relying on fact," he said.

And even Staver admits to some qualms about the influx of campaign dollars. He says the money is unprecedented and troublesome, and could lead in the direction that critics like candidate Sean Allen are warning about.

"As the price of politics continues to increase, I really don't want to exclude those in our community who would really like to get involved," Staver said.

Meanwhile, with just weeks to go before the election, fliers paid for by the National Association of Realtors that highlight Staver's commitment to development have already hit Rochester mailboxes.