Tracy Sides had just ordered a quiche, scone and coffee Monday morning at the Swede Hollow Cafe, near her office on St. Paul’s East Side, when her cellphone rang. Heads swiveled. Eyebrows lifted.
Sides listened, then raised her arms and let out a whoop. “We won!” she said.
Her choice of pronoun was significant. The winner Monday of the $1 million Forever St. Paul Challenge was not merely Sides, an epidemiologist and entrepreneur with a doctorate in public health, but all those who backed her idea to revitalize the capital city that she said promises to turn part of an East Side park preserve into a national model for local food production and distribution.
The St. Paul Foundation and the Minnesota Idea Open announced Monday that Sides’ “Urban Oasis,” one of three final entries that emerged last month from among nearly 1,000 ideas “to make St. Paul great,” had garnered more than half of 16,000-plus votes cast by the public and was the winner of a $1 million grant to turn her idea into reality.
In the next couple years, Sides and her team plan to turn part of a vacant century-old rail warehouse at the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary into an all-purpose “food hub” where local produce, meat and fish can be gathered, prepared and sold to schools, hospitals, restaurants and groceries.
The center would include a cafe, a commercial kitchen for the use of a catering firm, classrooms to teach cooking and canning, an affiliated food truck and a worker-owned food processing co-op. One of the warehouse floors would have a nature-themed event center.
“The community has been committed to restoring this land for years and a vision to transform that building into a community asset,” said Sides, who lives and works on the East Side. “When the challenge came along, this seemed like a natural next step to make St. Paul even better.”
Although this was the fourth Idea Open held by the Minnesota Community Foundation, it was the first that focused on a particular locality and the biggest by far in terms of funding. Previous grants amounted to no more than $15,000.
This year, the St. Paul Foundation carved the $1 million prize money out of a larger donation made four years ago to community foundations by the Minneapolis-St. Paul 2008 Host Committee, which ran the 2008 Republican National Convention.
The size of the prize was critical to accomplishing the contest’s goal: to inspire transformational ideas and motivate people to think big about ways to improve St. Paul. The competition was launched in February.
After the three finalists were selected from a pool of 30 semifinalists, Minnesotans were invited to vote for their favorite idea online and at the State Fair.
The other finalists were the St. Paul Art Train, an idea by Craig Blakely to convert unused rail cars into rentable art studios, and the St. Paul Center for Creative Arts, Jack Ray’s plan to create a hub for youths to learn and develop artistic disciplines.
Carleen Rhodes, president and CEO of the St. Paul Foundation and Minnesota Community Foundation, said she hoped that the contest will rally support behind these and other ideas.
“The whole contest wasn’t to get to one idea only, but to get a lot of people thinking about St. Paul and what they care about,” she said.
Because the Urban Oasis is still only in the idea stage, the next steps will be getting a fiscal agent and building a framework in which to channel the grant money.
Sides — a triathlete and adventurer who runs Bravely Be, an East Side wellness business that conducts retreats and public health projects — gets none of the money, unless she becomes a project contractor.
Ann Mulholland, an executive with Minnesota Philanthropy Partners, will work with Sides to decide on the terms of the grant agreement and develop an action plan and budget. Because the details have yet to be ironed out, Mulholland wasn’t able to say how much Sides’ plan will cost.
“We don’t know whether [$1 million] will be enough,” she said. “But a million dollars is a lot of money to catalyze the idea.”
The centerpiece of the Urban Oasis will be the abandoned brick warehouse called Lowertown Depot, which rises from the open fields below E. 7th Street and Interstate 94. Mayor Chris Coleman congratulated Sides and said that the city — which owns the old warehouse — looked forward to working with her.
The building is missing most of its windows and in recent years has played host mostly to graffiti artists, who have dribbled colored paints down the facade and scrawled “Beef Might Kill” on bricks near the roofline.
“Not our beef,” Sides said Monday outside the building. “It will come from grass-fed, happy cows.”