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ROCHESTER — In an expansive address Friday morning, area leaders outlined plans to tackle issues from housing to sustainability to economic growth in 2023.

In a series of State of the City speeches held inside the Mayo Civic Center, Mayor Kim Norton joined city, county and school district leaders to discuss community actions this year.

The mayor revealed new strategies city staff have in the works, including a soon-to-be-announced task force to improve downtown business conditions and ongoing work to set up a staffed help line for residents seeking answers from the city.

Rochester and Olmsted County joined a federal initiative last year that could mean more money and resources to boost the local housing market. Since then, city and county officials have started or are planning several programs to bring more affordable and senior housing to the area.

Norton said that work will continue this year while the city ramps up efforts to address homelessness in the area.

Rochester is also looking to boost its environmental efforts in 2023. The city plans to turn its energy commission into a sustainability commission, while staff work to encourage more green building throughout the community.

Other plans include a program to turn the city's felled trees into a carbon filter for water.

"It's a fantastic little project," Olmsted County Administrator Heidi Welsch said in her own speech on county goals for 2023.

City staff hope to move forward with installing a geothermal energy grid in downtown Rochester. The city asked for state bonding dollars last year, but the lack of an infrastructure bill forced the Rochester City Council to curtail plans for the network to only include a few city buildings on the east side of downtown.

That could change this year if the Minnesota Legislature considers a bonding bill, according to Norton. If Rochester gets state funding for the geothermal network, the city could tweak its $15 million plan to expand energy access to nearby businesses.

Rochester leaders plan to partner with area businesses and economic development groups to examine ways to speed up the downtown area's economic recovery. The task force is set to roll out within the next few weeks, Norton said.

Rochester recovered from job losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic quicker than any other part of the state, and unemployment in the area has been consistently lower than Minnesota's unemployment rate. Yet the city hasn't been immune to business churn in recent years – downtown Rochester lost businesses in 2022 after gains in 2021.

The mayor also called on residents to be more vigilant against hate speech and verbal abuse against local leaders, immigrants and other groups online and in public.

"Let me state the obvious: It is not helpful to this community to post negativity about our community or its elected leader or staff on Facebook or social media," Norton said.

Norton, a former DFL state legislator, has received outsized criticism from conservative-leaning residents in recent years, but she said after the speech she wasn't referring to residents' feedback on city issues.

She pointed out xenophobic comments on city social media pages during immigration celebrations, which she said has affected residents of color. Norton said residents spreading "uncalled-for fears, untruths and lies" end up hurting civic and business initiatives.

"I would ask that we stop finding stones to throw and instead break bricks to build and cement to bind together a strong and bright future," she said.