The Best $1 Million Idea for St. Paul

The Minnesota Idea Open is offering $1 million to one of three finalists, narrowed down from a pool of entries by judges ranging from a legislative aid to a celebrity chef. Here’s the best idea:

The St. Paul Art Train

st paul art train

The idea is to create a “Creative Enterprise Zone” that encourages “the growth of creative enterprises in theWest Midway Industrial District.” The plan is designed to fit the need for smaller, affordable spaces. This alone isn’t a revolutionary idea, but how it’s planned to be done is quite creative;

“The Art Train will help close the gap by demonstrating the feasibility of developing new creative space in recycled passenger rail cars permanently affixed to abandoned railroad spurs in the public right-of-way. Costs would be kept low because no land would be acquired and surplus passenger cars could be purchased and moved by rail to the site relatively cheaply.”

You’d be taking abandoned railroad tracks, fixing them up and running small businesses out of them. It aims to preserve light industrial space, provide new space for creative (or other) enterprise, protects the public right of way and help out the West Midway Industrial District.

Here’s why that’s a good idea:

  • This is very low-cost project that can be economically sustainable through the leasing of space to businesses. The other two entries have ambitious goals, but it’s hard to imagine how they would survive without continued donations or subsidies.
  • The location is not Lowertown (the location of both competing ideas). Lowertown is a vibrant place, but I’m not under the opinion that it needs a lot of outside help. A $1 million dollar investment in Midway has the potential to have a much greater impact on the community than in Lowertown. North of University Avenue in the West Midway area, there exists two types of land use: industrial and residential. People living in the neighborhood don’t have as much access to cultural amenities, shops, restaurants or businesses as other parts of the city. Industrial jobs are nearby (and that’s a good thing), but beyond that, amenities are few. Now, imagine if you lived in the neighborhood and instead of abandon heavy rail tracks, you had a small business corridor? That’s a huge benefit.
  • The submitting organization is the City of St. Paul’s Department of Planning and Economic Development. Why does this matter? They have the ability to make it happen. I certainly an emphasize with the criticism that a city organization winning goes against what people thought was the “spirit” of the competition. It does seem a bit unfair. However, I got to give it to them because it is the best idea; and compared to the competition, they offer the best chance of making it happen. (Note: I am unsure if this was submitted on behalf of St. Paul’s CPED or as an individual who just happends to work for CPED)

The competing ideas aren’t bad, but lack details and would require much more funding than $1 million. For example, building a Center for Creative Arts that has an emphasis on teaching youth artistic skills such as pottery and boat-making is noble. But, the idea is just an idea. Specifics of the entry vague; no location or further funding source, no details on what might someday be taught. To quote the entry;

“… Next to the Boatshop might be a pottery studio, next to that 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.”

This is a collection of things that could happen. It just seems too ambitious for the $1 million expenditure. The other idea, The Urban Oasis, fits into this category, too. It aims to create something of a Utopia; a park, nature preserve and worker-owned food cooperative adjacent to downtown St. Paul. I like this idea (especially the park) on a smaller scale, but am skeptical at efforts to rural-ize our urban centers. Building the park is a $50 million idea, not $1 million.

What’s brilliant about the Arts Train is that it’s too simple.

Vote for The St. Paul Art TrainIt’s the most reasonable, practical and sustainable idea that can best leverage the $1 million grant. Voting ends on September 2nd, so hurry up!