The Longest Table event was held along University Avenue on Wednesday, Sept. 4, bringing local residents together for a hearty meal catered by Hugo’s, and good conversation to boot.

The event kicked off with residents sitting down to dinner at 5:45 p.m. at the uninterrupted table -- actually 125 tables -- spanning a length of up to 1,250 feet.

"I am so excited; we are just building on the momentum of last year," said Kathryn Kester, event co-organizer and executive director of the Greater Grand Forks Young Professionals. "Last year was a huge success with 717 (people) in attendance, and that's why we felt comfortable raising our goal to 1,000 people this year."

The communal supper was first held last year in Grand Forks, after Gov. Doug Burgum visited in December 2018 to promote his Main Street Initiative to improve North Dakota cities and help attract a 21st century workforce.

Attendance is set to be greater than last year, which had a goal of 750 people. As of the morning of Sept. 4, more than 901 people had registered for the dinner, easily surpassing last year’s number.

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“We were very surprised we got so close to our goal last year and knew, with the community’s enthusiasm, we could break that 717 record,” said Becca Baumbach, executive director of the Community Foundation of Grand Forks, East Grand Forks and Region. “So we set our goal for 1,000 people.”

The dinner event has guests seated somewhat randomly with a variety of ages represented at each table. Tables have a question card for a table captain to help facilitate the conversations, which are about community issues and opportunities. This year’s goal is to gather information about the University Avenue Corridor, which runs from Columbia Road to North Third Street.

“It’s a great opportunity, having residents sitting in that corridor and thinking about if we were to re-imagine this and do something different, what that might be, what are the issues currently, what are the strengths,” said Baumbach. “What does the community want to happen with that space?”

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The event is paired with a survey, with the data going to JLG Architects to contribute to a master planning study to be used in decision making, community building and re-imagining public spaces in Grand Forks. The planning study is funded at the request of the Community Foundation and the Knight Foundation, and the data will be shared with the public.

"We're just coming to see some changes in the community," said Trevor Weiland, student senator for Education and Human Development at UND. He said he wanted to see more more UND student involvement in the community -- though he noted it goes both ways -- and he would like to hear from the community about how UND should evolve.

The Longest Table event also marks the beginning of the city-funded micro grants. Grand Forks city has provided $24,000 in funding to be awarded in grants up to the amount of $3,000, for people to get their ideas off the ground. The grants were inspired by Burgum’s Main Street Challenge, after his visit in 2018, and are facilitated by the Community Foundation.

“He challenged the community to stop asking what youth and young professionals want in the community and, instead, to empower them to build it themselves,” said Becca Cruger, of the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp. “That’s what drove the spirit of the first event, and that’s what still drives us today. We want to empower average, everyday citizens to build the community they want to live in.”

The grants may be applied for through Sept. 30. Grants may be applied for online at www.gofoundation.org/grants.

The free food event was brought to Grand Forks by Becca Cruger, of the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp., and Becca Baumbach, of the Community Foundation, after securing funding from the Knight Foundation. This year, the event was organized by Baumbach and Kathryn Kester, executive director of the Greater Grand Forks Young Professionals.

"I came last year, and I came again for the conversation," said Alicia Fadley, a table captain who noted that the event succeeds because people take ownership of their community and offer creative ways to improve it.

This year's event is funded by local entities, including two underwriters, the city of Grand Forks and Hugo’s.