How a local sound and light company helped bring Grand Forks to life
By Tami Vigness
Do you remember your first concert? For me, it was Reba McEntire at the Fargodome somewhere around the mid-nineties. I was probably 14 and not yet too cool to go to a concert with my parents. The house lights dimmed and a hush fell over the audience as a shiny white plane rolled onto the arena floor. I’ll never forget seeing Reba step out of that plane with her signature teased red hair to a roaring, sold-out crowd. In that moment, I fell in love with live music. Thanks to the tape of Reba’s Greatest Hits my mom played on repeat (or shall I say rewind) every Saturday during our weekly house-cleaning, I knew every song. I’m pretty sure I still have that ticket stub – along with many others – rubber cemented in my childhood scrapbook.
It’s creating moments and memories like these that are the driving force behind why event planners and promoters do what they do. For Jamie and Tricia Lunski, owners of HB, an audio-visual company with headquarters in Grand Forks, it’s no different. Although their company focuses on audio-visual production and technology, in recent years they’ve also added concert and festival promoters to their hat.
It makes sense. Having set stages, rigged lighting, and run soundboards for hundreds – maybe thousands – of concerts over the last 25+ years, the crew at HB know a thing or two about the concert world. And when you’ve been in the industry as long as they have, you make a few connections. With relationships built with everyone from the road crews to booking agents coupled with their own vast knowledge of event production, HB was well-positioned to tackle producing an event of their own right in their own backyard.
For years, the Lunskis dreamed of bringing an event to the Grand Forks community that showcased not only local and regional talent but national big-name artists as well. After the flood of 1997, when the Greenway was developed into what it is today, Jamie and Tricia saw so much potential in the new, more easily accessible space. They envisioned not just a concert, but an entire weekend full of activities, food trucks, games, and of course, live music in the beautiful, though underutilized, green space downtown near the river.
“After the flood, live music really took a hit in Grand Forks,” Jamie said. “We saw an opportunity to bring it back to life on the Greenway.”
They had the imagination, the concept, and the equipment…they just needed a plan to execute.
When the Vision Becomes Reality
In 2017, that dream finally became reality. “We were in a marketing meeting and I stepped away for forty-five seconds,” Tricia recalled with a laugh. “When I got back, we were doing a festival!” Suddenly years’ worth of imagining hosting a community event was about to come to life. Through long hours, hard work, and collaboration with other local arts organizations like Alley Alive, Happy Harry’s Blues on the Red, Big Forkin’ Festival and the North Dakota Museum of Art, the inaugural Greenway Takeover Festival was born and produced in just five short months.
With virtually no budget, the Lunskis had to get creative. Word-of-mouth and social media were key elements in their grassroots marketing efforts to spread the word about the festival. Anyone who has ever been in sales or fundraising can tell you that it’s not always easy to ask for money. As an established company that has been very involved in the Grand Forks community and region, HB was fortunate to secure sponsorship dollars to help offset production costs. Asking for money for an event that didn’t yet exist was no easy feat. But ultimately, HB’s goal for the Greenway Takeover Festival was for it to become a self-sustaining event whose purpose was to give back to the community and celebrate all it has to offer. With that in mind, several area businesses and organizations bought in to the Lunskis’ vision and committed dollars to the event.
Over the course of several days, HB semi-trailers made trips to the Greenway and the crew unloaded staging, lights, truss, soundboards, and tents. Generators were brought in to supply power to all the equipment. Fencing encircled the event area, food and beverage vendors positioned their trucks, and locals and out-of-towners alike came down to the river to see what all the fuss was about. They weren’t disappointed. What was previously a flat, grassy space relatively unused but for dog-walkers, joggers and bicyclists, had been transformed into actual festival grounds. In that first year, more than 10,000 attendees enjoyed live music in a way they had never before experienced in Grand Forks.
After a successful first year, it became clear that The Greenway Takeover Festival was here to stay. Energized by the response and participation of the community, Jamie, Tricia, and the HB crew immediately began brainstorming about how to grow the event and make it even better. HB became the presenting sponsor and other sponsorship revenue came in more easily as local businesses recognized the positive effect the festival had on the community and the economic impact it had to the city of Grand Forks. In 2018, they added games, additional vendors, and hot air balloon rides. In 2019, they realized an additional stage was needed to accommodate the growing number of performers. The Greenway Takeover Festival was evolving into so much more than just a weekend of games and music, it was truly becoming the highly anticipated community-driven event they had dreamed of.
And then COVID happened.
Navigating the “New Normal”
There’s nothing like a worldwide pandemic to suck the wind out of your sails.
Almost overnight, the events industry came to a screeching halt as we were urged to stay home, social distance and mask up. Around the globe, artists rescheduled concert dates only to ultimately cancel their tours entirely, meetings and conferences were held virtually, and we all wondered if this was the “new normal”.
The headliners G. Love & Special Sauce, Trampled by Turtles, and Soul Asylum had already been announced for the 2020 Greenway Takeover Festival. With the festival slated for its usual weekend after Labor Day, the Lunskis were optimistic that by September, everything would be back on track. No one predicted that two weeks of “hunkering down” would turn into well over a year of no mass gatherings or live events.
As the COVID-19 pandemic raged on, workers were furloughed, businesses tightened their budgets, and some were forced to close altogether. Hotel rooms were cancelled, flights were grounded, and leisure activities restricted. Restaurants began offering take-out and curbside service in an effort to remain open, and grocery stores implemented delivery for those confined to their homes. Employers hurried to submit paperwork for PPP loans to say afloat and all non-essential employees were encouraged to work from home.
The events industry was hit hard. Stagehands, AV crews, booking agents and event promoters saw their jobs become obsolete in a matter of days. Suddenly they needed to adapt and figure out how to keep their heads above water while the industry they knew and loved came crashing down around them. “It was a stressful time to be in the industry,” Jamie recalled. “Many companies like ours didn’t survive, we were lucky.”
Thankfully, the Lunskis are nothing if not creative. Jamie built mini studios in the HB office building and within two weeks of the shutdown, was helping clients run their meetings and conferences virtually. When graduation season rolled around, the HB crew helped area schools accommodate drive-thru graduation ceremonies. When the Alerus Center hosted a drive-in Metallica concert that fans could enjoy from their cars, HB was there with LED screens, lighting, and speakers. Even though the live music and event industry had been put on hold indefinitely, they were able to rely on their other areas of expertise to help clients navigate this new virtual reality.
Back and Better than Ever
Slowly but surely, things are getting back on track locally and worldwide. Almost as quickly as live events cancelled, they came back with a vengeance. Artists resumed their tours and the people responded. Live events were back and better than ever.
For Jamie, Tricia, and the crew, the first hint of normalcy came in May. After fourteen months of wondering what the future looked like, HB once again had a fully-booked schedule. They spent the summer juggling rescheduled conferences, concerts and of course, organizing the Greenway Takeover Festival which had been cancelled in 2020.
Luckily the stars aligned, and HB was able to secure the same headlining bands they had lined up in 2020 along with many other artists, performers, and groups. The festival was shaping up to be the biggest and best yet. A third stage was added that included performances from local arts organizations and interactive experiences for the audience.
The weather was the best it had ever been for the 2021 event. Festivalgoers came down to the Greenway in droves and it was more than evident that everyone was eager for what was likely their first real live concert in well over a year. Over the course of four days, thousands of people enjoyed games, food and drinks, performances, concerts and even a 220’ zip line.
More than ever, the communities of Grand Forks, East Grand Forks, and the surrounding area rallied together to support the festival; realizing the importance of live events, the impact they have in the community, and role they play in overall well-being. In response to the enthusiastic crowd, artists performed with renewed passion. Experiences previously taken for granted were enjoyed in a way they hadn’t been before.
In spite of the fears and challenges that plagued 2020 and the uncertainty that weighed heavily on the minds of business owners like Jamie and Tricia, something positive came as a result. They learned that the community they know and love, the sponsors that supported their vision, the volunteers who put in countless hours, and the artists that shared their time and talent, did so with the same mission in mind: to bring people together and make the Greenway Takeover Festival the community-driven event it was always meant to be. G
// To view the full story, check out the digital issue here
From Issue 1, 2021
PHOTOS By Shawna Noel Photography