St. Paul-area food hub project still more dream than reality

•    Article by: KEVIN DUCHSCHERE , Star Tribune Updated: September 28, 2014 – 10:02 PM

Tracy Sides is working on developing a local-food hub on St. Paul’s East Side.

 

Tracy Sides dreamed of converting an abandoned rail warehouse on St. Paul’s East Side into an all-purpose food hub that prepared and distributed local produce, meat and fish.

But a year after winning $1 million to make her idea a reality, her Urban Oasis is still more a project than a place.

It has sponsored a movie night about urban agriculture, and a “Food Fest” that featured tomato canning and local food vendors. In the works are a class teaching people how to cook healthy food at home, and catering programs showcasing local farmers.

But Sides’ bigger plans, tied to the restoration of the old warehouse in the heart of the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary, have had to be tabled because of problems that make the building too impractical and expensive to use.

“The living part of that idea is about the magic that happens with food,” Sides said last week. “That’s what the million dollars is going toward, cultivating a healthy prosperous community on the East Side.

“We hope to accomplish that, and we’re doing that through some other containers for now.”

Nevertheless, Sides — energetic by nature and an epidemiologist by trade — is confident that she’ll secure a home for her sustainable food venture, now camping out in the offices of an East Side nonprofit. This fall she expects to announce a move into commercial kitchen space in the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood.

And her dream may eventually lead back to the warehouse site itself, in the form of a new interpretive center planned there.

“We’d like to work with Tracy on that project,” said Dan McGuiness, executive director of the Lower Phalen Creek Project, which is spearheading planning for the center and also administers most of the prize money that launched Urban Oasis.

‘A win for all of us’

Nearly 1,000 ideas to revitalize the capital city were submitted last year to the Forever St. Paul Challenge, a contest sponsored by the St. Paul Foundation and the Minnesota Idea Open, with funds donated by the local committee that ran the 2008 Republican National Convention in the Twin Cities.

After the field of ideas was narrowed to three, Sides’ Urban Oasis collected more than half the votes cast by the public and was declared winner of the $1 million grant.

“We won!” she yelled when learning of the news at the Swede Hollow Cafe.

Sides, who has a doctorate in public health, planned to transform the city-owned, graffiti-smeared warehouse into a food center, complete with a commercial kitchen, classrooms to teach cooking and canning, a worker-owned food processing co-op, food truck and a cafe.

Locally grown foods could be prepared there for sale to schools, hospitals, restaurants and stores.

“The community has been committed to restoring this land for years and [has had] a vision to transform that building into a community asset,” Sides said at the time.

But only a few weeks later, Sides learned that prospects for food businesses setting up shop at the warehouse, called Lowertown Depot, were more limited than she knew. The terms of the Metropolitan Council funding that the city had used to buy the warehouse prohibited commercial uses not tied to the nature sanctuary.

Then efforts led by the Lower Phalen Creek Project to get $3.5 million in state bonding to partly fund redevelopment of the warehouse — estimated to cost around $10 million in all — fell short at the Legislature.

City officials and East Siders began to warm to the idea of razing the structure and building in its place a 10,000-square-foot, $5 million interpretive and community center featuring exhibits and programs.

That’s now the focus of Lower Phalen Creek, a community-based nonprofit that hopes to get $2.5 million in state funding for a new center in the next legislative session. If everything falls into place, McGuiness estimates it could open in 2017.

“Everyone feels much more comfortable with this approach, which isn’t to say there aren’t some people who wish we could save the old building,” he said.

In the meantime, Lower Phalen Creek became one of two fiscal agents administering Urban Oasis’ $1 million grant. It handles two-thirds of the money, with the balance managed by another community development nonprofit, Local Initiatives Support Corp.

Sides and three others contract with Lower Phalen Creek to run Urban Oasis, which McGuiness said could wind up operating a cafe and catering service at the new center.

“We view any success that Urban Oasis has on the East Side as a win for all of us,” he said.

“If there’s an interpretive center, we’d love to be part of the programming,” Sides said. “We’ll stay part of the conversation as that unfolds.”

In the meantime, she said, Urban Oasis will continue to build on the initial grant that got it started. Eventually, she said, it will have to be sustained through fundraising and generation of its own revenue.

“Some things have changed,” Sides said. “But with a very big idea, a thousand-mile journey starts with a single step. Our seed is a seedling on its way to becoming a healthy tree.”