‘Longest Table’ hosts dinner, sparks civic-engagement dialogue near UND

‘Longest Table’ hosts dinner, sparks civic-engagement dialogue near UND

On Wednesday, hundreds gathered at a blocks-long table along the westbound lane of University Avenue for the second iteration of Main Street GF: Longest Table. Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today.

For a time on Wednesday evening, the sounds drifting over University Avenue near UND were of conversations, not cars.

The normal traffic on the avenue near University Park was detoured  — not for construction (this time), but for a unique community gathering happening for a second year in a row.

More than 1,000 residents, leaders and everyone in between gathered at a single, six-block-long table to dine and to talk about the present and future of their hometown as well as about the corridor connecting “town and gown,” Grand Forks and the University of North Dakota.

The Main Street GF: Longest Table, organized by the Community Foundation and Greater Grand Forks Young Professionals, once again placed itself in a vital area of the community. Last year, more than 700 participants filled downtown’s North Third Street, in front of that street’s vibrant businesses and restaurants.

Meloney Linder

Moving right next to UND’s campus for Year Two was an acknowledgement of the deep partnership between Greater Grand Forks and UND, said Meloney Linder, vice president of marketing & communications at UND. Linder also served as a “table captain” on Wednesday, leading conversations about a community she’s known for only the past year.

But the hundreds of people surrounding her, all of them displaying their desire for a greater community, convinced Linder that Grand Forks “walks the walk” of building neighborliness and trust, which is no small feat in her eyes.

“Something that has impressed me from Day One is how much synergy there is between the elements of this city,” she said, listing off City Hall, Grand Forks Air Force Base, the economic development entities, Longest Table organizers/sponsors, UND and so on.

“People work together to make this a great place and are constantly thinking about ways to continue making this a place where people want to live, work and play. That’s special.”

Phenomenal partners

After Kathryn Kester saw the traction gained from last year’s event, she increased the length of this year’s table by a few hundred feet. The executive director of Greater Grand Forks Young Professionals thinks people who didn’t come for the first go-around saw the photos, the coverage and the positive reception last year, and that changed their minds.

Since the first Longest Table in Tallahassee, Fla., in 2016, similar events have sprung up around the country. Among host cities, Grand Forks is a good example of one that has grown attendance and created a successful celebration of civic engagement.

Being home to a flagship institution such as UND likely helps.

“UND is a phenomenal partner in so many aspects,” Kester, the event’s emcee, exclaimed. “They were a priority for us this year, since we’re hosting over 1,000 people in their ‘territory.’ We’re trying to connect the University to downtown and engage students in the community, overall.”

The organizers reached out to student groups across campus to help not only with setting up and tearing down the pop-up dinner party, but also with leading the cross-table dialogue.

As GGFYP President Aubrey Barney asked, “When the discussion involves connecting UND with our downtown, who better to ask than students and faculty?”

In bringing the community’s biggest dinner party close to campus, organizers and sponsors want to gauge the way stakeholders are thinking of not only University Avenue, which connects UND to downtown, but the area overall. Participants filled out surveys online and on paper during the event. Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today.

Kester sees a key advantage in the mobility of an event such as Longest Table. And this year, moving to University Avenue offered another advantage, too.

“This year, JLG Architects, the Community Foundation and Knight Foundation are working on a corridor study of University Avenue,” she explained. “We’re asking people what they would like to see in the space.”

Becca Baumbach, executive director for the Community Foundation, clarified that the study isn’t about immediate changes.

“We just want to give city leaders, decision-makers and community members the opportunity to reimagine the space,” she said. “There’s a lot happening at UND, a lot happening downtown, and we don’t want this corridor to be left in the dust.”

Similar to last year, organizers and sponsors wanted to gauge perception of Grand Forks across the board – from arts and culture to childcare and housing.

Aside from the main organizers, sponsors include UND, Hugo’s Family Marketplace, Altru Health System, Acme Rents, Alerus, the city of Grand Forks, the Bush Foundation’s Consensus Council, JLG Architects, AE2S, Gate City Bank, Bremer Bank and UND’s Energy & Environmental Research Center.

1,000 closest friends

UND Interim President Joshua Wynne sat down among strangers yesterday, finding himself in a perfect environment to do more listening than talking.

“It’s nice when your thousand closest friends show up to mingle,” he said. “I think it’s symbolic that we’re all sitting at one table, breaking bread together.”

Josh Wynne

Joshua Wynne

Regarding the corridor study, Wynne recognizes the University’s desire to seek avenues — pun intended, he says — more closely connecting UND with the community.

“What we’re doing now, along with the city, is thinking of the specifics,” he continued. “The good intentions are there, but this table is one way we’re working out the specific ways we can do that.”

Baumbach echoes Wynn in the sense that Longest Table is one of the best ways to directly engage UND. The alumna remembers her time as a student, and being involved on campus; she wants people to see all of the opportunities to be involved off campus.

Such opportunities include the chance to apply for up to $3,000 in grant funding directly related to Main Street GF: Longest Table. Last year, 10 people across Grand Forks were awarded. The summer months of 2019 saw many of the ideas go from table-top to reality.

“The Young Professionals and the Community Foundation want to see students become more a part of the community,” she said. “It’s only going to benefit the student experience as well as the rest of the community. We want Grand Forks to be a part of their UND experience.”

Moreover, the organizers hoped to continue dispelling the notion that to find a job after graduation, former Fighting Hawks need to leave the nests they’ve built in Grand Forks.

“That’s simply not true,” Barney said.

“My hope is that the young people participating in the conversation will learn about the many opportunities waiting for them, right in their own backyard.”