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Rochester Grows Up: Highway 52, flood control project create Med City’s foundation

by Taj Simmons, Multimedia Journalist

ROCHESTER, Minn. (KTTC) — It’s no surprise that Destination Medical Center is the most anticipated project to come to Rochester in recent memory for people such as Olmsted County Administrator Richard Devlin.

“It will have more development in the downtown area, and that’s what we’re anticipating the most,” said Devlin.

Before awaiting what’s to come though, it’s best to remember the two big projects that arguably made DMC possible in the first place: the widening of Highway 52 and the flood control project.

“A lot of the development they’re talking about downtown would not be discussed if we didn’t have the flood control project here,” said Devlin.

That’s because of the very real risk Rochester faced of repeating the tragedy of July 1978. The great flood of 1978 left five people dead and caused around $60 million of damage–$173 million in today’s dollars–within Rochester. Tragically, a bill for a flood control project was sitting in Congress for two years when the disaster struck, but Assistant City Administrator Gary Neumann said the flood was the catalyst to bring it to life.

“In all bad things, there’s a silver lining,” said Neumann. “The silver lining was that the ’78 flood really provided the evidence that it was really needed for the bill that was already in Congress.”

It took nine years to get the federal government’s share, and from 1987 to 1995 the Zumbro River was completely transformed. While the $118 million project revamped the river within the city by digging it deeper and adding trails along the water, the largest parts of the project are found on the city’s outskirts.

Rochester’s seven flood control reservoirs are picturesque, but they serve a greater purpose, holding back water from the city streams. If this water wasn’t retained, the city would’ve faced a massive disaster, especially in 2007.

That August, flash flooding killed seven people and left the city of Rushford underwater, and if not for the flood control project, Rochester might have suffered a similar fate.

“Some areas of town had eight to ten inches of rain that day,” said Neumann. “As far as I can tell, that’s the second greatest 24 hour rainfall event we’ve had.”

The Highway 52 widening project also radically changed the face of the Med City. Before the new millennium, Rochester’s main route to the Twin Cities was only two lanes each way and growing increasingly dangerous.

“At the time, it was workable, but everybody could see the traffic volumes were going to build,” said Mike Dougherty of MnDOT.

That all changed when the $232 million ROC 52 project reconstructed the highway from 2002 to 2006.

“When it was all happening, people thought it was perhaps too big and too early,” said Dougherty. “In looking back, this really set things up well for the city to grow.”

Dougherty said the project could’ve taken until 2015 if Highway 52 was redesigned section by section. Instead, construction workers powered through it all at once, and the highway has only grown in traffic in the ten years since the renovation, with more than 60,000 cars traveling that stretch of 52 every day.

“It’s nice to get it all out of the way,” said Dougherty. “Sometimes it’s a little painful, but in the end, the end result turned out really well and now people are talking about what comes next.”

Whether you’re taking a drive on Highway 52 or taking a run along the Zumbro River, remember, these projects of the past paved the way for what may come next for Rochester.


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