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The Quiet Death of the Mayor's $1 Million Challenge

• The mayor's office, Union-Tribune and HeroX were supposed to collaborate on the Innovate San Diego Challenge to award $1M to the person or group with the best idea to fix a local problem.

• After the Union-Tribune was purchased, the new ownership had no interest in continuing the challenge. It quietly died with no announcement from the mayor's office.

A hallmark of Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s State of the City addresses is enlisting outside groups to tackle major city challenges. A year ago, he convened a task force to create a Chargers stadium solution; this year he declared San Diego scientists would cure Alzheimer’s.

Likewise, in his 2015 State of the City address Faulconer announced a challenge called Innovate San Diego. It would generate big ideas that would change the city. The person or group whose idea did the most to improve housing, infrastructure or entrepreneurship in San Diego would win $1 million.

“I’m proud to announce the ‘Innovate San Diego Challenge,’ a collaboration with U-T San Diego and HeroX. This year, I will ask San Diego residents to join me in embracing our biggest challenges and opportunities,” Faulconer said during his speech.

But the $1 million never materialized and the challenge never happened.

The Union-Tribune had initially approached the mayor with the idea to collaborate on the challenge, said Faulconer spokesman Charles Chamberlayne.

The mayor’s role would be to “solicit ideas, promote, raise profile – help improve the city,” Chamberlayne said.

The $1 million in prize money was supposed to be raised from sponsors.

The plan was for the city to partner with the San Diego Union-Tribune and a group called HeroX, a company that sponsors similar challenges around the country. HeroX works like Kickstarter in reverse: Where Kickstarter raises money for a person with a specific solution in mind, HeroX dangles a cash incentive, and a project organizer gives it to the person who comes up with the best solution.

Things started off OK: For a while after the mayor’s announcement, two staffers from Faulconer’s office and three Union-Tribune staffers joined two HeroX officials on weekly conference calls for about four months.

Chamberlayne said they discussed fundraising ideas and dates.

The challenge was announced on social media by several entities, including HeroX.

But when Tribune Publishing purchased the San Diego Union-Tribune in mid-2015, the challenge died before it really got started. The new ownership didn’t have any interest in the project, said Chamberlayne.

The Union-Tribune and the mayor’s office both said the project never made it through the fundraising stage, and the $1 million was never raised, because the challenge was shut down after the Tribune purchase.

The Union-Tribune had put up $50,000 to cover operating expenses while the team pulled together logistics and raised the prize money. HeroX returned most of the funds once the challenge was shut down.

The mayor’s office did not look for another partner for the project after the Union-Tribune pulled out, said Faulconer’s deputy chief of staff, Matt Awbrey. It quietly let the challenge die, and never issued a press release or announcement to let the public know the opportunity it had promoted as part of the mayor’s priorities for 2015 was null and void.

Awbrey said there was no need to publicly cancel the project because the challenge was still just in the planning stage.

“The Union-Tribune and city mutually agreed not to move beyond the planning stage, and HeroX was informed accordingly,” Awbrey said.

“The challenge was never launched, and so no one applied,” said Nidhi Chaudhary, HeroX’s vice president of challenge success.

But two teams appear to have pre-registered for the challenge on its website. Chaudhary did not respond to an email requesting clarification.

An invitation to pre-register for, or sponsor, the challenge is still active on HeroX’s website. The company confirmed the project is defunct.

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