Green light for campus greenhouse renovation

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Photo by Kathryn Ganfield
Joel Vaillancourt

Joel Vaillancourt

Joel Vaillancourt is a guest writer and currently enrolled at Metropolitan State University.

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A vacant green­house next to the Library and Learn­ing Cen­ter on the St. Paul cam­pus will gain new life thanks to a $400,000 appro­pri­a­tion from the Min­nesota State Leg­is­la­ture. By 2019, the build­ing will become the GROW-​IT Cen­ter, an inclu­sive research cen­ter for stu­dents, fac­ulty and the community.

GROW-​IT is an acronym for Gate­way for Research, Out­reach, Work­force Devel­op­ment, Inno­va­tion and Teaching.

The green­house will be ren­o­vated exten­sively. Three research bays will be con­verted into one large grow­ing space. An addi­tional restroom will be built and an office will be moved. A front room will host work­shops and classes.

Pro­fes­sor Mark Asplen of the Nat­ural Sci­ences Depart­ment has over­seen the sci­en­tific side of the project. The plan­ning team believes that the GROW-​IT Cen­ter will be a boon to stu­dents study­ing a vari­ety of sub­jects, from chem­istry to nurs­ing to psy­chol­ogy. “You’re going to have sci­en­tists work­ing right next to psy­chol­o­gists and peo­ple in other pro­grams,” said Asplen. “Being close together can build collaboration.”

The build­ing has a long his­tory as a space for sci­en­tific research. Com­mis­sioned and built by the Min­nesota Bio­log­i­cal Pest Con­trol Research Pro­gram in 1998, it was used to study the impact of inva­sive insects.

In 2008, the reces­sion forced the Min­nesota Leg­is­la­ture to imple­ment bud­get cuts and shut­ter the site. Later that year, the Min­nesota Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture trans­ferred the prop­erty to Metro State.

Asplen also envi­sions the site as a space for col­lab­o­ra­tion between the uni­ver­sity and East Side com­mu­nity where the needs of res­i­dents can inform the university’s research. “We want to have the com­mu­nity inspire the research in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the fac­ulty, and work together so that they already know why the research is impor­tant,” Asplen said.

Jodi Bant­ley, Com­mu­nity Engage­ment Coor­di­na­tor for the Insti­tute for Com­mu­nity Engage­ment and Schol­ar­ship (ICES), said the GROW-​IT Cen­ter will be an “urban agri­cul­tural gate­way” for the East Side. The neigh­bor­hood is clas­si­fied as a food desert, defined by the Amer­i­can Nutri­tion Asso­ci­a­tion as “a part of the coun­try vapid of fresh fruit, veg­eta­bles and other health­ful whole foods.”

Bant­ley explained that the project is a nat­ural next step for a neigh­bor­hood with a his­tory of com­mu­nity agriculture.“There’s a very strong move­ment of orga­ni­za­tions on the East Side that includes urban farm­ers that started early healthy food move­ments, sus­tain­able agri­cul­ture and farm to table prac­tices,” she said.

The university’s deci­sion to work with the non­profit com­mu­nity orga­ni­za­tion Urban Roots will pro­vide those work­ing in the GROW-​IT Cen­ter with a “rich edu­ca­tional oppor­tu­nity,” accord­ing to Met­ro­pol­i­tan State Pres­i­dent Vir­ginia Arthur. Urban Roots is located at 463 Maria, just steps from the green­house. “If you’re doing some­thing in the green­house, you’re going to be inter­act­ing with mem­bers of the com­mu­nity,” said Arthur.

There will be an empha­sis on teach­ing res­i­dents about urban agri­cul­ture and meth­ods of grow­ing their own fruits and vegetables.

Pres­i­dent Arthur believes that hav­ing stu­dents work together can pre­pare them for life beyond col­lege. “In real life, we have to inter­act with peo­ple from dif­fer­ent back­grounds,” she said. “In real life, your prob­lems are never segmented.”

The trans­for­ma­tion of the green­house into the GROW-​IT Cen­ter has been many years in the mak­ing. In 2014, talks began at Metro State among mem­bers of the fac­ulty and admin­is­tra­tion about what a ren­o­va­tion of the green­house could look like.

Now, in 2017, things are look­ing very good for the pro­posed GROW-​IT Cen­ter. Archi­tec­tural plans for the project have been drafted, and nearly 75 per­cent of the fund­ing has been secured.

In total, around $700,000 has been raised between the leg­isla­tive appro­pri­a­tion and pri­vate dona­tions. CHS, spon­sor of the St. Paul Saints base­ball sta­dium, donated $235,000. Bant­ley esti­mates that the final cost will be $1.1 to $1.2 million.