By Emily Allen
Published by the Grand Forks Herald on Sept. 5, 2018
About 750 people in the Grand Forks area were invited Wednesday night to talk about their community over dinner at the "Longest Table," so long the city had to close North Third Street to accommodate it.
Organizers set up a stretch of 90 dinner tables in downtown Grand Forks as part of the Longest Table event, a program launched two years ago in Tallahassee, Fla., where residents gather to meet their neighbors over free food.
The effort to bring the Longest Table to Grand forks began after the Gov. Doug Burgum visited Grand Forks last December, according to Becca Cruger of the Greater Grand Forks Young Professionals group and Becca Bahnmiller of the Grand Forks Community Foundation.
Burgum had spent the time talking with city leaders and young adults about his Main Street Initiative to improve North Dakota cities and attract a younger, 21st century workforce.
"What was really interesting," Cruger said, "was that the people Gov. Burgum really wanted to hear from were young adults."
To get more younger residents and community members involved in efforts to strengthen the community, Cruger and Bahmiller initiated the process of bring Longest Table or a similar event to Grand Forks, eventually landing $40,000 in funding through the Knight Foundation for set-up, marketing and administrative costs.
Since the first Longest Table in 2016, Bahnmiller said the Knight Foundation has brought it to other communities the organization serves, including Dayton, Ohio, and Oak Park, Ill., some of which Grand Forks organizers have talked to for advice and planning help.
For Tallahassee's first year, Bahnmiller said organizers only counted a little over 200 people. Before the Grand Forks event, she said 632 residents had already registered to participate.
"It just really shows how people want to connect," she said.
Cruger said the event also demonstrates a desire for unity among city leaders and local organizations like Hugo's supermarkets, which donated enough food and water for 750 people. "We're seen such huge support from our city leaders, saying we want you to be involved, too," Cruger said, "which is just as unprecedented."
After Cruger and Bahnmiller secured the Knight funding, Cruger said the city agreed to provide micro grants of up to $3,000 to support any ideas to improve the community, which might arise from Longest Table discussions facilitated by table captains.
"The ideas don't just stay on the table, they get off the table," Bahmiller said.
Peyton Cole, a junior at UND and a member of the Young Professionals, was one of the table captains Wednesday night.
"We just really want to foster an open conversation for people to have," she said, mentioning a sheet of topics she had to facilitate open conversations about the community and ideas residents have for improvement.
Micro grant applications will open after the dinner at www.longesttablegf.com. Cruger said the only requirement is that ideas follow at least one of Burgum's Main Street Initiative pillars he mentioned during his visit—healthy, vibrant communities, efficient infrastructure and 21st century workforce.
"I can't wait to see what happens in 2019 because of this," Cruger said.
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