With $1M prize money apparently gone, Urban Oasis shutting down

Farm Forum

The dream was launched three years ago, the winner of a million-dollar idea contest.

But now it has come crashing to the ground.

The St. Paul Foundation spent $1 million on Urban Oasis, a food-oriented advocacy group that will be dissolving Dec. 31.

The money is — apparently — gone. “We have been unable to identify a sustainable financial model for our broad vision,” said founder Tracy Sides in a news release.

Sides won the money in the 2013 “Forever St. Paul Challenge,” a contest for the best idea to improve life in St. Paul. Her proposal — to promote the growing and cooking of local food in the inner city — was picked over almost 1,000 competing ideas.

She announced in a news release recently that Urban Oasis was disbanding, with some of its programs transferred to other nonprofits.

“We are disappointed that the organization will not be around,” said St. Paul Foundation communications manager Andy Goldman-Gray. “But we are happy to learn that the programs will be taking on new lives.”

He would not comment about the management, financing or feasibility of the proposal. The foundation has not repeated the contest since 2013, and Goldman-Gray said there are no plans to do so in the future.

When the Urban Oasis idea won the contest, the news was greeted by a wave of publicity.

Sides’ vision rose to the top of a crowded field of ideas, which included a treehouse hotel and a floating museum.

The winning proposal called for the rehabbing of an abandoned four-story building in the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary. Sides pictured transforming it into a food workers’ cooperative, cafe, event center and commercial catering kitchen.

But the first cost estimate for the work came in at $9 million. Then Sides discovered that the land could not be used by businesses, which scuttled any public-private partnerships.

She retrenched, and opened a street-corner kitchen in St. Paul. From there, she launched programs to teach nutritious cooking and encourage local food production.

By December 2015, she spent $675,000 she had received from the foundation. She said on Oct. 10 that she never received the remaining $325,000.

Since January, Urban Oasis has been operating as an independent nonprofit, she said.

It’s not known if the entire $1 million has been spent. Foundation spokesman Goldman-Gray said the foundation never expected a refund for any of the proposals, even if they were to prove unworkable.

Sides said in a news release that some programs will be transferred to other groups:

• Healthy Meals in a Snap, a program teaching food-related skills, is being adopted by the Dayton’s Bluff Community Council.

• The Edible Streetscape project, which grew edible plants in planters, also will be transferred to the Dayton’s Bluff council.

• The Kitchen on the Bluff, a community kitchen, is being taken over by the Latino Economic Development Center.

She said she doesn’t know if the Urban Oasis line of condiments, which are sold at St. Paul Saints games, will be continued.

The news release said that in its “short but powerful lifespan” Urban Oasis educated people about nutrition and food preparation, and brought the community together in the community kitchen. “It drew positive attention to the role of food in revitalizing the neighborhood.”

The birth and death of Urban Oasis provides lessons in running nonprofits, according to Jon Pratt, director of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits.

Ongoing financial support, he said, is critical.

“Often, you have a great idea,” said Pratt. “So who else thinks you have a great idea? Who else could financially support this idea?”

He said that perhaps the publicity surrounding the million-dollar idea convinced other potential donors that their money was not needed.