Rosenblum: Summer dreamin' leads to big ideas in St. Paul

  • Updated: August 14, 2013 - 9:22 PM

It’s unlikely that anyone is having more fun with summer dreaming than Paul White of Ham Lake. And something tells me the $53 million richer Minnesota State Lottery winner is thinking even bigger than the Acura Integra he apparently spotted on Craigslist.

But we all get to do some summer dreaming this week, in a philanthropic, feel-good, Minnesota way.

On Tuesday, the St. Paul Foundation and Minnesota Idea Open announced three finalists in the Forever St. Paul Challenge. The best big idea for making St. Paul great will receive $1 million.

And we get to pick it.

So, how do you feel about vibrant, rentable spaces for offices, art studios and restaurants — inside old railcars?

Or transforming a massive abandoned structure at the serene Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary into a national destination for local food systems?

Or creating a bustling riverfront youth center to help struggling kids build confidence and skills by literally floating their boats?

Sorry. You only get to vote once. (Go to www.mnideaopen.org or look for the voting booth at the Minnesota State Fair).

This isn’t the first year Minnesotans have had a stake in improving our state, but it’s certainly the grandest. The three previous Idea Open challenges took on obesity, water issues and working together across cultures and faiths. Those winners, also determined by Minnesota voters, were granted $15,000 each.

“The first three were more issue-specific,” said Carleen Rhodes, president and CEO of the St. Paul Foundation. “This year, the question was about what would make the St. Paul community stronger, and the prize is much bigger.”

More than 900 people threw ideas into the hat. Community volunteers whittled the list to 30, then brought in experts to help candidates refine and focus their proposals. A panel of judges picked the final trio.

“I thought it had some legs,” said finalist Craig Blakely, a St. Paul city planner who lives near the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. “I can hear the trains when they go by Midway Stadium and blow their horns.”

Blakely’s love affair with trains began at age 4, when he rode the night train from St. Louis to Des Moines, the excitement palpable at the sound of “All Aboard!”

He’s equally enchanted with his “St. Paul Art Train” and its economic potential. He’d likely begin by converting three old railroad cars into 850-square-foot offices and studios, with a restaurant or coffee shop in the caboose. The project could eventually expand to 100,000-square-feet and would, he hopes, evoke St. Paul’s “railroad past and creative enterprise future.”

Anyone who’s strolled Manhattan’s inspired Highline can understand the parallels Blakely sees between that 19th-century artifact and his project. “It’s that kind of energy we’re tapping into,” he said of New York City’s mile-long linear park built on a section of railroad spur. “This is the old railroad infrastructure transformed. It’s a new way of thinking about the city.”

Finalist Tracy Sides’ new way of thinking is to make St. Paul no less than “the national destination for local food systems done right.”

She’d do that by transforming the abandoned four-story building in the middle of the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary into an “Urban Oasis” and one-of-a-kind food hub.

The first floor could become an event center, she mused, with additional floors for a commercial kitchen, as well as spaces for cooking and food-preservation classes. Another floor might house a cooperative to process and distribute locally grown food, pooled by local farmers, to grocery stores and restaurants.

“The great thing about the idea,” said Sides who was, fittingly, at a statewide food summit on Wednesday, “is that there is no one purpose. But we’d all come together around food.”

The sanctuary, a 10-minute walk from St. Paul’s Lowertown, “is just asking to be revitalized,” she said. “It’s a dream come true to be this far along in this challenge.”

Finalist Jack Ray has seen the transformation that occurs among young people floating down the river on a vessel they’ve crafted with their own hands. He wants to build on that idea in a big way with his St. Paul Center for Creative Arts.

The riverfront “learning incubator” would offer youths a safe and nurturing place to learn and practice various creative, and potentially professional, disciplines, from boatbuilding to robotics to ceramics to bronze-casting to weaving to computer labs.

He sees skilled adults, too, willing to give of their time to teach these hands-on skills.

Many of the young people he hopes will be drawn to his center “are stumbling on the path to adulthood,” said Ray, a founder of Urban Boatbuilders, a Twin Cities nonprofit youth development program.

“Learning you can make things and do things and they’re high quality and they work is an important experience for young people to have,” said Ray, who works in St. Paul’s Department of Human Rights.

“Hey, if I can build a boat, I can finish my educational career. I can build my community. I can save the planet from global warming.”

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com

612-673-7350

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