Million-dollar contest winners have IonE edge

Illustration from Urban Oasis proposal

On Monday, September 9, two former Institute on the Environment-affiliated students celebrated a major victory. Eric Sannerud and Ally Czechowicz were on the team that won the Forever St. Paul Challenge, a million-dollar prize for the best idea to uplift a St. Paul community.

Tracy Sides, who holds a Ph.D. in public health from the University of Minnesota, came up with the winning idea to build the Urban Oasis, transforming an existing structure in a city park into a venue connecting food, nature and culture.

According to Sides’ submission to the contest, the Urban Oasis will be a “signature food hub and nature-themed event center in the ‘uniquely St. Paul’ place of the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary.” The venue aims to benefit the community by creating jobs, improving health and fostering a sense of community. The Urban Oasis was one of almost 1,000 ideas that were submitted to the contest, which kicked off in February. A panel of judges whittled the entries down to three; St. Paulites then voted for the idea they liked most.

Sannerud and Czechowicz, IonE Acara program alums, joined the campaign team early to help market the idea to the public. Acara works with emerging student entrepreneurs to envision and launch social and environmental ventures through courses, mentorship and on-the-ground application in India, Africa and the U.S.

Sannerud, who, at the time, was working as the interim director of the Undergraduate Leaders Program at IonE (and was in the first cohort of the program), managed the social media campaign and organized a phone bank to get out the word. “IonE was very supportive of the media campaign and let me spread the word through their vast social media network,” he said.

Czechowicz, a U of M College of Design graduate who, in addition to Acara, participated in the IonE Boreas Leadership program, also worked with the contest media team. Her aquaponics venture, Twin Fin, was incubated through Acara and she thought it might make a suitable vendor in the Urban Oasis. “If not for Acara, I would not have been at the table for Urban Oasis.”

Image courtesy of Rafferty Rafferty Tollefson Lindeke Architects