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Public can decide which St. Paul ‘big idea’ earns $1 million

The stakes are high as three big ideas designed to make St. Paul a better place compete in the Forever St. Paul Idea Challenge.

Minnesotans get to choose, and the prize is $1 million to implement the winning plan.

The public will decide, like on “American Idol” or “The Voice.” Online and text voting is now open, or you can vote in person, at the Forever St. Paul State Fair booth, near the Space Tower. All Minnesotans are eligible. Voting ends Sept. 2.

The challenge is sponsored by the St. Paul Foundation, an affiliate of Minnesota Philanthropy Partners.

The three big ideas are:

  • Using refurbished train cars in the Midway area to house creative and artistic enterprises.
  • A craft center for youth, containing a hub of shops for boat-making, pottery, music, sculpting or other creative interests.
  • A food hub and nature-based event center in the vacant building inside the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary, just east of downtown St. Paul.

The three finalists were chosen by judges from 30 semi-finalists (which had been winnowed from more than 900 entries).

One judge, Lenny Russo, owner and chef at St. Paul’s Heartland restaurant, said the three finalists were chosen based on innovation, sustainability and impact. 

“We were told not to imprint or to project our own thoughts or ideas onto the proposals,” he said.

None of the finalist ideas are off-the-wall, nor do they have an amazing “Wow!” factor (such as bringing the World’s Fair to St. Paul in 2022 or adding a zip line from the High Bridge to Harriet Island). But all do appear doable, given a lot more work and the $1 million budget that the organizers will provide.

(Interestingly, two of the three finalist ideas were submitted by City of St. Paul employees: Craig Blakely, a planner in the Planning and Economic Development department, and Jack Ray, a coordinator in the city’s Contract Compliance and Business Development department. Tracy Sides, the third finalist, left a public health career at the University of Minnesota to start her own small business.)

Now the three are drumming up popular support for their ideas, with methods not unlike a political campaign. There’s a YouTube video about each idea:

And the finalists will have stints at the State Fair booth over the next two weeks to woo voters in person.

Here’s a look at the three ideas:

Hop on the Art Train

Blakely sees an opportunity to create some business buzz in an underused part of the city, the West Midway Industrial District. His work at the city had him looking for ways to help transition the area from heavy industrial and warehouses to a broader mix of businesses, as the new light rail line changes the landscape.

He calls his finalist idea an economic development proposal as well as an arts promoter. It would show the “feasibility of using recycled passenger rail cars permanently affixed to abandoned railroad spurs in the public right-of-way for creative and artistic businesses,” he said.

Costs would be lower than most start-up space, so small creative ventures could operate relatively cheaply.

He calls it

“a bridge between the 20th century light industrial economy and the 21st century creative enterprise economy that helps preserve entry-level industrial jobs, embodies the railroad origins of the area, and helps brand the entire district as an exciting place to do business in the regional economic development marketplace.”

His partners in the plan would include:

  • St. Paul Design Center.
  • St. Anthony Park Community Council.
  • Creative Enterprise Zone.
  • St. Paul Public Works, which would need to accept ownership of the unused rail spur from the Minnesota Commercial Railway.

Blakely said the Minnesota Commercial Railway wants to give most of its tracks on Charles Street to the city, or remove them from the street.

Blakely said he stresses feasibility when pushing his plan: “It can actually be done for $1 million because it avoids the huge cost of acquiring land and it can be sustained because it rents out space to viable creative enterprises that can afford it.”

Creative Arts for kids

Ray says his idea for a creative arts center for youth, particularly disadvantaged youth, would build on the success of the Urban Boatbuilders youth program, which he helped found.

He said he’s seen how some kids struggled at school but blossomed while working to build canoes and kayaks in the nonprofit program.

His idea calls for a series of youth studios, loosely linked, to provide synergy for learning and creating. He suggested such programs as:

“…a bronze and iron foundry, next to a fabric arts center, next to a robotics lab, next to a music and video studio, next to a glass studio, next to a print shop and poster collective, next to a industrial prototyping shop, next to a bicycle production facility, next to a youth run news organization, next to a clothing design and production shop.”

He’d like to see an associated entrepreneurial center to help kids apply their new skills in a business setting.

In addition to Urban Boatbuilders, Ray says he could partner with the St. Paul Schools, Springboard for the Arts, Leonardo’s Basement, the Neighborhood Development Center and others.

He’s basing the plan on Penfield School of Crafts in North Carolina, which says it “offers workshops in books and paper, clay, drawing and painting, glass, iron, metals, photography, printmaking and letterpress, textiles, wood, and other media … sponsors artist residencies, a gallery and visitors center, and community education programs.”

The Food Hub

“It’s not so much that we’re campaigning for it, more like aspiring to it,” said Sides. She said it’s easy to excite people about her food hub idea “because food is something that everybody relates to … and they’re interested in supporting us because of the sustainability, health, jobs and building community.”

She foresees many spokes in her food hub: a commercial kitchen and classrooms for a catering company, a food truck, a worker-owned food processing cooperative for local produce, entrepreneurs who create healthy value-added food products, as well as classes in growing and preserving food and cooking.

Sides said she’s developed a team to implement the plan, should she win, including:

  • The Association for the Advancement of Hmong Women in Minnesota, which would bring urban farmers to the table.
  • Community Table of Minneapolis, which promotes local food growing, processing and marketing.
  • Farmers’ Legal Action Group.
  • Good Life Cafe and Good Life Catering.
  • Mighty Grange, a start-up commercial aquaponics business.
  • Bridger Merkt, a chef who will teach meal planning and cooking.
  • Tanya Bell and Louise Segreto for development consulting.
  • The Lower Phalen Creek Project nonprofit community organization, which is redeveloping the abandoned building.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Richard Callahan on 08/22/2013 - 01:12 pm.


    It’s hard to imagine how any of these ideas could be self-sustaining. The probability of any small enterprise surviving is low even when they have a solid business plan. These are good ideas, and having them would be nice, but without substantial on-going government support, I see them folding up after the initial million is spent.

    I would have preferred to see the million dollars of seed money go to some effort with long term benefit. How about something as simple as remediating some polluted land to make it ready for commercial use? It’s not very romantic, or “cool”, but it would be useful and potentially spur economic development over a long period. That’s what St. Paul needs.

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