If you had $1 million to make St. Paul great, what would you do? Expand reading programs for kids? Build a year-round Crashed Ice track? Annex Roseville?

Almost anything is possible, courtesy of the Minnesota Idea Open, which is offering $1 million to implement the best idea from a person or group to revitalize the capital city.

"St. Paul is a really interesting, vibrant community with a lot of things shifting and changing, and some of the vitality for the future will come out of ideas from citizens," said Carleen Rhodes, president and CEO of the sponsoring Minnesota Community Foundation and the St. Paul Foundation.

"I look at this as an R[esearch] and D[evelopment] function. We'll get lots of good ideas for the city."

This year's competition, called Forever St. Paul, is radically different from previous Idea Opens in at least two respects: It is focused on a particular locality, and it is offering more money -- make that a lot more money -- than the $15,000 grants awarded up to now.

The St. Paul Foundation is fronting the $1 million award, which comes out of a larger donation made four years ago by the Minneapolis-St. Paul 2008 Host Committee.

The committee, which ran the 2008 Republican National Convention, wound up with a surplus of nearly $7 million and split it among the St. Paul Foundation, the Minneapolis Foundation and the Minnesota Foundation.

"We intend to inspire very big ideas through this grant, transformational thinking to do something that people may not have ever dreamed they'd be able to do for our community," said Naomi Pesky, marketing director for the St. Paul Foundation.

The foundation will formally launch the competition Feb. 16 at Union Depot, when St. Paul artist Ta-coumba Aiken will unveil a mural of more than half a million Lite-Brite pegs in hopes of breaking the Guinness world record for largest Lite-Brite picture.

All those little lights are meant to represent ideas.

The Minnesota Idea Open was started in 2010 by the Minnesota Community Foundation, along with the Citizens League and other community partners, with the challenge of figuring out how to get people to eat better. The winner got $15,000 to develop a youth-led program to help kids make healthy food choices.

In 2011, two women won $15,000 for a program encouraging agricultural water conservation techniques. Last year, three entries each won $15,000 for their ideas to bridge cultural and faith divides. All told, more than 10,000 ideas have been submitted in the past three years, Pesky said.

Starting next Wednesday, ideas for this year's St. Paul challenge can be entered online at mnideaopen.org/foreversaintpaul, e-mailed to info@mnideaopen.org, mailed (Forever Saint Paul Challenge entries c/o Grassroots Solutions 2828 University Av. SE, Suite 150 Minneapolis, MN 55414), phoned in (612-217-1580), or submitted at an upcoming open house.

The competition is open to any Minnesota resident or group not affiliated with the St. Paul Foundation or associated organizations.

A formal proposal isn't required, just something with a descriptive title and a few simple sentences that don't exceed 2,000 characters.

Volunteer reviewers will narrow the field to 25 or 30 semifinalists based on innovation, impact and sustainability. An expert panel of judges will choose three finalists, and then the winner will be chosen by the public via e-mail, text messaging or at in-person events. All rules are available on the Minnesota Idea Open website.

Why St. Paul for the focus of this year's challenge? It was partly because the host committee wanted its donation to be used to benefit St. Paul, Pesky said, and partly because research shows that Minnesotans have deep pride in their capital.

"Our goal is to harness Minnesotans' best and brightest ideas to make St. Paul forever strong," she said.

Kevin Duchschere • 651-925-5035