AUGUSTA — A group of people looking for ways to help welcome and integrate a growing number of immigrants and refugees into the community hopes to create a new food market downtown serving up a variety of ethnic foods with shared seating at common tables.

The idea is to create an atmosphere where residents both new and old can come together to form connections across cultures as they dine with each other.

One major potential hurdle to their plan, however, is the estimated cost of between $1 million and $1.5 million to build the kind of space the group desires.

The proposal, which organizers have dubbed World to Table, would renovate space in a building somewhere on Water Street into an open-concept food market, with about five individually owned and operated food booths that would be operated by people serving up ethnic foods, including Iraqi, Syrian, and French Canadian. A shared industrial kitchen would be on site and dining would take place at common tables so diners could get to know each other and learn about other cultures, as they break bread together.

“Sharing culture will help revitalize the economy and reverse decades of demographic decline,” said Hania Mumtaz, one of a handful of students and graduates of Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy spending this summer in Augusta researching ways to help refugees be welcomed and integrated into their new host communities. “Providing a space where old Mainers and new Mainers alike can come together will facilitate this often slow process, creating networks and relationships and fostering creativity to, in turn, fulfill the potential we all know downtown Augusta has.”

Calling it “culinary diplomacy,” Mumtaz said it’s a great way to break down barriers.

“Research and human experience has shown sharing a nice lobster roll or some kibbeh can break down invisible barriers and provide a commonality between people from all walks of life,” Mumtaz said.

The market would be overseen by a group currently in the process of being formed and seeking official nonprofit status, but the individual food booths would be owned and operated by individuals who function as their own business. The hope is at least some be owned by immigrants who would cook and sell the foods of their cultures.

Anna Ackerman, an Augusta native and Tufts graduate and one of the World to Table group’s co-founders, said part of the idea is the individual booth owners would start their businesses there and, once they’ve established a market, could move out and start their own independent eateries.

She said it would be a pilot project which, if successful, they’d like to see duplicated elsewhere. She said they plan to focus primarily on Augusta for at least the market’s first three years.

Demetri Goutos, one of the Tufts student-researchers, said they anticipate they’d need between 4,000 and 6,000 square-feet of space for the market. Renovating space so it meets codes, and adding an industrial kitchen for shared use by the booth operators, as well as the common dining area, isn’t going to come cheap.

“We’re not naive about the cost of renovating such an area,” Goutos told city councilors during a recent presentation on the proposal. “We expect, in total, the startup cost to be between $1 million and $1.5 million.”

He said the group has already applied for eight different grants, totaling about $150,000, and has also identified 20 other grants to apply for by the end of the year, totaling between $3 million and $5 million.

Ackerman said they’re hopeful and optimistic they will find the right foundations and grants with missions that would lead them to help fund the project.

Once it is established, Ackerman expects it to become nearly, but not quite, self-sustaining, with revenues generated by food sales and hosting events, potentially covering 90 percent of the market’s operating costs.

City Manager William Bridgeo said members of the Tufts group were allowed to stay at a city-owned cabin during their stay in Augusta.

While the other members of the group from Tufts have, or will soon, depart Augusta, Ackerman and co-founder Max McGrath-Horn would remain in Maine to try to create the proposed market. She said they would hire a manager to oversee the market’s operations.

Group members have worked with local residents and officials involved in the Capital Area New Mainers Project and have hosted immigrants and longer-term residents for group meals and discussions together, providing a seed which grew into the current proposal.

“This group is working currently as a community collaboration which is designed to help members of the immigrant community who have found their way to Augusta meet their basic human needs of food and clothing and shelter and education, and, over a reasonable period of time, become integrated into the community and be productive members of it,” the Rev. Francis Morin, administrator of St. Michael Catholic Parish, which includes several area churches, said of the group. “Ultimately we’re all children of immigrants and blessed when we have an opportunity to pay it forward.”

Ackerman said there are approximately 500 people in Augusta who are refugees. She said most of Augusta’s new Mainers didn’t come directly from their home countries to Augusta. Instead, most were forced to flee their home countries, lived in neighboring countries, then made their way to spots elsewhere in the United States before making their way to Maine. She said most refugees living in the United States today have gone through a two-year vetting processes. She said everyone’s experience is different but in general refugee families have been on the move a long time, and suffered a great deal of trauma, before resettling here.

Mayor David Rollins said city officials have been informed by Catholic Charities, a group which helps refugees settle in this country, that more immigrants are coming to Maine, and at least some of them are likely to come to Augusta.

He and other city officials have worked with the new Mainers and Tufts groups to try to make Augusta welcoming to immigrants.

“It is a new wave and a new trend and my thoughts, after talking to my colleagues and people around town, is if this is happening, we should be proactive instead of being reactive,” Rollins said.

Ackerman said they’re looking for input from local community members about the market project. The group can be reached by email at [email protected] and information about it is available on the group’s Facebook page.

She said the market, rather than being subsidized competition for other local food businesses, would be a boon to Water Street, because the more things that bring people to the street, the better it will be for all businesses there.

They plan to host a “pop-up” dinner event in the community in August, with the same idea as the market in mind — that people from different cultures will be more likely to find common ground and form connections if they gather together for a meal.

“I’m constantly reminded how welcoming the Augusta community is, and am excited to see how sharing food brings new and old Mainers to the same table,” McGrath-Horn said, in an email.

Ackerman said they’d like to secure a location for the market and have it renovated in time to open in the summer of 2018.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj