The potential impact of Destination Medical Center on our area is of much interest to local residents. A regional meeting in Lanesboro and a community meeting in LeRoy were held late last year with representatives from DMC. Harmony had a discussion session last week and Spring Valley's community foundation will feature a speaker on DMC in April.

There is good reason for the interest about DMC. The DMC initiative, announced last year, represents the largest economic development opportunity in Minnesota and one of the largest in the country with nearly $6 billion in private investment.

Some local residents are expecting a sudden, monumental change when DMC takes shape. However, we may instead be looking at a continuation of a trend that started about 20 years ago.

Speaking at the Historic Bluff Country annual meeting, Ron Ziegler, president and CEO of Community & Economic Development Associates (CEDA), which provides economic development directors to many communities in our area, pointed out that the $6 billion investment is over the next 20 years. More interesting is when he pointed out that over the past 20 years, there has been $5 billion invested in the area as a result of Mayo Clinic.

In reality, Mayo Clinic has been, and will continue, to grow at a rapid, but steady rate. A look back may provide some insight into what is coming.

Mayo Clinic is the state's largest employer with more than 38,000 people. It is estimated that the clinic generates $9.6 billion in economic impact to the state.

Rochester, where more than 20 percent of the population is employed by the health care sector, compared to 3.9 percent in the rest of the state, has grown from 70,745 in the 1990 census to 106,769 in the 2010 census, a 51 percent increase. Olmsted County as a whole grew more than 16 percent.

The population level of Fillmore County, on the other hand, remained flat with a gain of just 89 people during the 20 years of those three census counts.

That may seem disappointing to local residents. However, rural counties in other parts of Minnesota would love that kind of stability.

In the last 25 years, the populations of Minnesota's 25 smallest counties have shrunk by nearly 13 percent. The median age in these more rural counties is rising rapidly and many businesses and services have vanished as communities are dying with more nursing homes and assisted living units than school classrooms for young people.

Our population number may not have changed much, but we have gone through some drastic changes as Mayo Clinic has grown. Think about how many of the metal tags you see on license plates, signifying Mayo parking for employees, or about the expansion of commuter buses, which largely transport Mayo employees, into our communities.

Like many rural communities, we have lost many local jobs, but Mayo Clinic has filled in the void, turning our area into more of a bedroom community, although far from a total bedroom community as we still have a good mix here.

A large portion of our population now travels a good distance to work, something that wasn't true 25 years ago. That has changed many facets of life in our communities. We may not have had an influx of people, but our way of life has changed drastically, putting strains on local businesses that don't have as many customers working locally, services, such as fire and ambulance, that don't have as many volunteers available during the day, and social life as more homes are vacant more hours than they are full during the day.

Mayo Clinic growth, combined with the DMC initiative, will create an estimated 35,000 to 45,000 jobs in Minnesota. About 25,000 to 30,000 will be direct jobs to the DMC/Mayo initiative and 10,000 to 15,000 will be to indirect jobs over the next 20 years.

The inner ring communities connected by a four-lane highway - Byron, Stewartville and Pine Island - will likely be affected most by this continued growth, as will Chatfield, the Fillmore County city closest to Rochester.

However, the growth will have an impact on all of our communities in some way. In the past, Mayo Clinic employment did more to keep people here, and bring new people in to replace people that left the area due to loss of employment. In the future, it is likely that the jobs will just bring in more new residents.

Why the optimism? The unemployment rate in Fillmore County is now very near that of Olmsted County. In the past, the rate was always much higher, a sign of a weak rural economy.

The lower unemployment rate would indicate there aren't nearly as many displaced workers looking to fill a loss of employment locally. The pool for Mayo Clinic jobs isn't necessarily here. Instead, people will be pulled in from outside the area.

The growth could also mean growth of other local employment not related to Mayo Clinic jobs since permanent population may increase and the transient population in the region will certainly increase.

Ziegler said communities that want to take advantage of these changes should focus on three things:

•Tourism to attract the increasing number of visitors who have more free time than appointment time and will want to explore the area when not seeing medical staff.

• Housing to get ready for growth, even if it is steady rather than explosive.

•Business opportunities that can cater to the increased growth and provide employment for spouses of Mayo Clinic employees looking to choose a community to settle down in.

Local communities will likely have more meetings and planning sessions focused on DMC. Communities need to address the potential created by DMC.

However, it is also prudent to take a look back and analyze how much the growth of Mayo Clinic has changed our area over the past two decades. Past trends could offer valuable insight into the future.