Andrea Dono has always known that residents of Harrisonburg, Virginia, are an enthusiastic bunch. As executive director of Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance, an organization founded to enliven the city’s once declining downtown, she’s witnessed that enthusiasm firsthand during numerous community events. And yet even she was surprised by the embrace of last fall’s Levitt AMP campaign, when townspeople logged on and texted in droves to make the city the No. 1 online vote-getter during the public voting period of the 2023-2025 Levitt AMP Grant selection process.
“We thought that people were going to be excited about it, but they were exponentially so,” she says of the response to the Levitt AMP Harrisonburg Music Series, which will offer 10 weekly evenings of free, live music starting mid-July. “And that’s very characteristic of Harrisonburg.”
A college town of more than 50,000 nestled in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, Harrisonburg is known as “The Friendly City,” and Dono says it’s always managed to live up to that billing since she first moved there. Founded in 2003, HDR was created in response to community concerns about the rising number of vacancies in the downtown district, and since then the organization has overseen numerous community events and festivals—including the popular Taste of Downtown restaurant month—initiated beautification projects, and organized more than 100,000 volunteer hours to turn the area into a vibrant cultural and commercial hub, winning recognition from the National Main Street Center for its efforts.
“There’s an incredible DIY spirit here,” she says. “When you have a smaller town where there are fewer resources, a lot of times people step up to fill that void. I think that’s why we’ve been so successful in our downtown revitalization, because so much of it has been driven by volunteers.”
In fact, Dono says the idea to apply for the Levitt AMP grant came straight from the community as well. Up until 2018, Harrisonburg had a long-running free summer music series called Fridays on the Square, and when HDR sought community feedback to help create a master plan for further revitalizing the downtown area, “everyone kept saying how much they missed the music series,” she says. “It came up so many times that it became apparent if there wasn’t some way to bring the music series back, we’d really be missing out on something that the community would love to see happen.”
The Levitt AMP Harrisonburg Music Series will take place downtown in a grassy lot just behind the Harrisonburg City Hall. Adjacent to the local outdoor Turner Pavilion, which hosts a popular farmer’s market throughout the year, Dono says the lot area itself sits largely unused by everyone except dog-walkers. She hopes the attention drawn by the Levitt AMP series will kickstart a campaign to further refurbish and activate the space.
“It’s right in the core of downtown, and it could be so much more,” Dono says of the space. “So if we can allow people to come in for 10 days out of the year for the Levitt series, people will get to experience the space in a new way, and hopefully become advocates for taking this underutilized space and turning it into a community asset.”
And HDR has plenty of ideas to ensure the Levitt AMP series offers something for everyone. As a refugee resettlement community, Harrisonburg is home to a wide range of cultures and languages, including significant Iraqi, Honduran, and Mexican communities; Dono plans to actively reach out to the town’s various cultural groups, book diverse performers, and make sure advertising and promotion for the series is translated into Spanish, Arabic and Kurdish. Taking advantage of Harrisonburg’s sizable student population—the city is home to James Madison University and Eastern Mennonite University, which together enroll more than 20,000 students—the organization is actively recruiting volunteers from the universities and local high schools, hoping to leverage the series as a way to provide hands-on professional experience for young people interested in careers in the music industry.
HDR has been reaching out to local nonprofits to invite them to set up tables around the concert space, where they can raise awareness for various causes and recruit volunteers. The organization has also been engaging with downtown restaurants, which Dono hopes will offer special to-go picnic meals for Levitt AMP nights. “I know a lot of [other Levitt AMP sites] have food trucks, but we really want to encourage people to support our downtown businesses,” she says.
In any case, Dono knows that drumming up excitement for the Levitt AMP series is hardly a concern.
“It was just unbelievable how many people took this up as something they were passionate about. I had board members tell us there were people stopping them in the street to talk about the potential for free concerts to return to Harrisonburg, who didn’t even know they were on our board. Now we’re actually wondering if the space is going to be big enough!” she says with a laugh. The Levitt AMP Harrisonburg Music Series is scheduled to launch in mid-July of this year, so stay tuned!