Buildings in downtown Rochester are reportedly being sold for millions of dollars, some more than twice their estimated value, likely a result of the $6 billion Destination Medical Center project that is just getting underway. DMC isn’t just about real estate speculation, though, as new hotels, senior housing units and office buildings are already going up in Rochester in anticipation of the growth the project will bring.

Rochester residents, meeting in Mayo Civic Center recently to hear about the most recent details on DMC, were told the project could add 320,000 square feet of shops, restaurants and entertainment space, 2,850 housing units, 1,380 hotel rooms and 6.8 million square feet of health care facilities to Rochester.

Meanwhile, residents in the outlying areas are wondering what, if anything, will change in their community as a result of DMC. There are no million dollar speculative transactions or grand plans for massive development in rural areas surrounding Rochester.

Small town leaders may not have found a magic answer to enable their communities to capitalize on the projected growth of DMC, but they have discovered a potentially successful formula — cooperation.

It’s not that cooperation is a foreign concept in rural southeastern Minnesota. It’s just that traditionally small towns have seen each other as competitors, a carryover from the rivalry on the playing fields of high school sports. Although cooperation has evolved greatly in recent years, it wasn’t that long ago that many small towns refused to share economic development directors because they feared the potential favoritism by a shared director in luring a company to “the other” community.

Community foundations have built on that rivalry while modifying the end game to a win-win situation in order to improve all communities. Spring Valley and Preston, once bitter rivals in sports, started a challenge three years ago during Give to the Max Day. A friendly wager is placed on which foundations can raise the most money during the Minnesota online day of giving.

Although Preston has won the contest each time, Spring Valley Area Community Foundation board members aren’t sore losers. In fact, they don’t see themselves as losers at all, calling it a winning formula for both foundations. After all, the Spring Valley foundation raised  $10,435 in that one day.

Community foundations in Rushford and Harmony saw the value of the challenge and last year took up a similar contest, spreading the cooperative venture to more communities in the area. The contests ended up bringing in more than $29,000 to foundations in Fillmore County in 2014, making all the residents in these communities winners as the funds are invested back in the local communities.

The cooperation is spreading in other ways to once rival communities and even more distant towns that don’t have a shared history, but have similar challenges due to their size and proximity to Rochester.

The Southern Minnesota Initiative Fund recently organized a gathering of more than 100 people from small towns throughout southeastern Minnesota for a regional growth initiative to come up with ideas for projects that could fit in with the transformation expected due to DMC. Another recent session, independent of the SMIF one and targeted to a county, was a Fillmore County Economic Development Summit organized by the Fillmore County Economic Development Authority.

Officials from Rushford to Spring Valley gathered for a presentation on the impact of DMC, labor statistics and Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) at the county summit.

Just as at the SMIF event, cooperation was on the minds of the people there.

Chris Giesen, economic development director for Harmony and Chatfield, is a project leader for one of the projects — a regional marketing project — selected at the gathering of SMIF that his team would like to see created in conjunction with Mayo Clinic.

He pointed out that if every community were to contact Mayo Clinic about getting information on their particular town to patients and workers, it would become “white noise” to clinic officials, who would tune it out. However, a unified, cooperative approach would have more impact while also making it easier for Mayo Clinic to understand and potentially implement a regional project.

Small communities in the area have common issues — lagging population growth, pressures on small businesses that often result in closures, young people fleeing as soon as they graduate from high school, consolidation of services, schools and businesses that diminishes local identity, and less of a voice in government as power shifts to the metro area.

They also have common strengths — a conscientious workforce, safe streets, friendly residents who are truly neighborly, magnificent natural resources, phenomenal volunteer capacity, great generosity as evidenced by the giving to foundations, a rich heritage that is treasured and community pride as shown by a unique festival in almost every town across the region.

Communities can gain much more leverage by banding together to promote those assets rather than fighting each other for what they believe is their fair share.

As Rushford City Administrator Steve Sarvi noted at the end of the county summit, communities are going to find out one way or another that they have to work together for real success. Those communities that don’t cooperate will have to be content with “the crumbs” that fall their way in the end.