Harmony-area residents, business owners and organizational leaders gathered last Thursday evening to discuss ways to make the most of opportunities resulting from the development of the Destination Medical Center in Rochester. As the meeting progressed, the group agreed on several priorities, including creating an authentic small-town experience for visitors; offering transportation to the greater Southeastern Minnesota area; making sure information is abundant and readily available and enticing new employees to live in Harmony.

Harmony's Economic Development coordinator, Chris Giesen, opened the meeting by first giving a brief overview of how the Destination Medical Center (DMC) could provide opportunities not only for Rochester, but the surrounding communities. "The key is to figure out how cities like Harmony can plug themselves into this model," he said.

The DMC promises to have a huge economic impact with an estimated 35,000 to 45,000 new jobs created in and around Rochester; an increased number of visitors to the area, looking for ways to entertain themselves between medical appointments; and new residents looking for homes, many of whom may prefer to live in a small town and commute into the city for work.

While the state is dedicating $585 million to the project, Giesen said Harmony would not benefit from any of those dollars. He explained those funds are being infused into an area of Rochester, in the downtown, which would be similar to a TIF district set up in Harmony to fund development.

Just because actual dollars are not being funneled into the Harmony community, Giesen said he feels there are ways to take advantage of the opportunities resulting from the development taking place 45 miles away.

"This is a blank page for Rochester," he said, "and they are getting guidance from the state. We can take that format and move forward with that on our own. We will not get direction from Rochester. It is our responsibility to make the most of this opportunity."

When the discussion began, those attending focused on several areas they felt should be priorities to get visitors to come to Harmony as well as entice possible residents to the community.

Providing transportation from the city into the smaller communities of Bluff Country was one of the main suggestions.

"We need to make this area accessible as a destination for a day, or an afternoon," said Mayor Steve Donney.

Many options were discussed, including working with the Trail Towns organization or Historic Bluff Country to sponsor a van or bus with a daily route - or even just on weekends to start.

Donney also mentioned improving Highway 52 and the streets and roads in the county and area communities to make travel more pleasant. "We have to support our own infrastructure and make sure they are in good condition," he said. "We all play a part."

Giesen explained that many of the new patients expected at Mayo Clinic will be of the younger variety, so many of the visitors will be families coming to the Rochester area for a week or several weeks. "They will likely have three appointments a week with the rest of the time being free time," said Giesen. "We have to think about how we can entertain them."

Vicky Tribon pointed out that there are already many reasons why people come to the area and felt that promoting them would be a logical step. The group felt that Harmony's shopping, recreational trail activities, Amish tours, Niagara Cave, woodcarving museum and hunting and fishing opportunities were just a few of the things that make Harmony appealing to a visitor.

Making information about those attractions available to visitors was also a topic of conversation. Chamber director Emily Ellis noted the city's website has many new features, including a blog, visitor testimonials and a list of suggested "travel packages" to create a specialized experience for families and couples looking for a day trip.

Ellis also mentioned recording certain Harmony experiences and posting them as YouTube videos to entice visitors. Ideas she shared included riding a bike on the trail, walking through Niagara Cave or riding in an Amish buggy.

Related to that issue, resident Lori Slindee suggested that residents review attractions, stores and restaurants online to help increase the popularity and search results of local businesses. "You have to learn to be a spokesman for the area," she added.

Slindee also suggested getting information about the area to the concierge of the Clinic and ask that it be shared with visitors. Since Mayo Clinic is such a trusted entity, any information gathered there also exudes that feeling of trust, she said.

Giesen agreed and said that getting information about Harmony to the DMC is essential, but also said it has to be in an effective and efficient format so they can distribute it to their customers. That could come in the form of Harmony's visitors' guide or a targeted promotional piece created specifically for the Destination Medical Center distribution.

Another idea was to develop a "Harmony ap" for smartphone users. Jill Fishbaugher said that was an actual possibility.

Asahi Loft owner Cindy Ofstedahl agreed that social media was an important aspect of any promotional efforts. She suggested that every business have at least a Facebook page to reach visitors and local residents as well.

In addition to enticing visitors, all agreed that Harmony is a possible home option for the new employees as well. Rochester City Lines runs a bus from Harmony to Mayo Clinic already, making the commute more affordable and comfortable for many employees. Telecommuting is also a possibility as Fishbaugher assured those gathered that the Internet capabilities are sufficient and could be developed if a greater need arose.

"An increase in the number of homes would definitely be a benefit to Harmony," Giesen said. It would provide a larger tax base, provide more utility users and would likely increase school enrollment and local business use.

Kerry Kingsley stated that those looking for a small town living environment should be attracted to Harmony as it continues to be a "full-service" community, with a grocery, hardware store, restaurants and bars, pharmacy and other businesses providing the basic needs for the residents.

"And we're open all year round," added Ofstedahl.

Attorney Dick Nethercut suggested promoting that "full-service community" may be just as important as promoting Harmony as a tourism destination. "We are an authentic small town and many people may just be looking for that experience rather than a hyped up tourism experience," he said.

Giesen asked the group, "What do we do next? We have a lot of good ideas and opportunities, but what is the next step?"

Slindee suggested that each person attending go home and write some reviews and testimonials to share on the city website and on local business websites.

Ellis noted that she would be keeping the website up-to-date with business information and posting blogs, videos and testimonials. It was also suggested that Harmony create a poster with all of the community's events on it so visitors know there are many reasons to return.

All agreed they would be interested in attending another meeting to work on some of the goals and ideas set last week. Working with other communities to appeal to a bus company and to create a destination experience were also discussed.

As the meeting came to an end, Giesen complimented those who had attended for their interest and their willingness to look forward.

Slindee agreed. "Working together has always been a strength in Harmony. We must live up to our name," she concluded.