May 10, 2023 | Cumberland, Maryland, is a community steeped in history. Located on the banks of the Potomac River across from West Virginia, and sitting along the famed Cumberland Road through the Appalachian Mountains, the city played an important role in the development of Colonial America. Serving as a key gateway for western migration during the early years of the United States, and once the second largest community in the state, Cumberland deservedly earned the nickname “the Queen City” for its bustling opulence.
Over the past half century, however, the steady loss of manufacturing has left Cumberland and its surrounding areas in Allegany County among the poorest communities in the United States. Isolated from major metropolitan centers and faced with a declining population, the community of 19,000 has confronted serious challenges, ranging from drug addiction to childhood poverty. But recent years have begun to see an upswing in Cumberland’s fortunes, and the Allegany Arts Council hopes to continue that trend with this year’s inaugural Levitt AMP Cumberland Music Series—which will present free, live music for 10 straight weeks starting in June.
“This is an area that hasn’t had a lot of wins recently,” says Allegany Arts Council Executive Director Julie B. Westendorff. “But when a community sees positive things happening, it can provide a huge psychological boost and a catalyst for a lot of incredible change and evolution. It has a real impact on people, and how they perceive the place where they live. We’re putting a lot on this concert series, and I believe it’s worth the effort.”
Founded back in the mid-1970s with a mission to enrich Cumberland civic life through the arts, Allegany Arts has spearheaded a number of impactful ventures in recent years—from operating a downtown gallery space, organizing the biannual Mountain Maryland Plein Air painting competition and the nationwide Allegany Photo Show (which regularly attracts 900 entrants per year), and a recently launched quilting competition. And yet presenting and promoting live music is a novel development for the organization, and it’s a challenge that Allegany Arts has fully embraced.
The impetus for launching the Levitt AMP Music Series, Westendorff says, was the urgent need to activate the underused Festival Grounds at Canal Place. Nestled on the banks of the Potomac, adjacent to Cumberland’s downtown district—which is currently embarking on a $12 million dollar renovation process—and located along the Great Allegany Passage (a route travelled by 100,000 bicyclists every year), the public space seems an ideal central location to re-energize community life. Yet, with a historical dearth of programming, the Festival Grounds at Canal Place have been under threat from proposals by city officials to divide and privatize the land.
For Westendorff, the Levitt AMP Music Series will be the perfect opportunity to illustrate just how valuable Festival Grounds can be as a public resource for the Cumberland community.
“It’s a great big empty lawn, and it does take some vision and money to activate it, which is part of the reason it has gone underutilized in the past,” she says. “But it really is right at the heart of the downtown Cumberland area, at the intersection of some of the most historic architecture on the residential and commercial sides of the city.” The public space is situated on the water, which has played an enormous role in this community’s history and heritage, and has scenic views of West Virginia. “The idea of bringing together a community that has been very fragmented through the years in one central space, in the heartbeat of the community, seemed really important,” adds Westendorff.
Launching on June 1 with a performance by ragtime-fusion act Blair Crimmins & the Hookers, Levitt AMP Cumberland’s inaugural concert lineup is thoroughly eclectic, ranging from Americana and country artists to jazz, flamenco, and soul. Booking a diverse slate of performers was particularly important to Westendorff, who notes that while Cumberland boasts a robust local music community, the location’s distance from large stadiums or airports has meant—up to now—a lack of ready access to outside performers.
With the Levitt AMP grant supporting the music series for three years, joining several other local partners including Frostburg State University and the tourism bureau of Allegany County, Westendorff has plenty of ideas to further enrich the community experience through such collaborations in 2024 and 2025. She hopes to use the series to further connect Canal Place to businesses in downtown Cumberland, bring in food and beverage vendors, pursue partnerships with local nonprofits, and explore opening the series to corporate sponsorship opportunities.
For this summer, she’s focused on delivering an impactful season of free music that will spur the community’s imagination, and enable the nonprofit to be responsive to community feedback. “We’re having a bit of a Kevin Costner moment: if you build it, they will come,” Westendorff continues. “We want to provide something for everyone, and sometimes, you have to have a bigger vision and trust that people will come along with you. This is a very economically depressed community, so being able to offer something that’s free, that families can come to, it makes me really hopeful that it’s going to resonate.”
The Levitt AMP Cumberland Music Series kicks off on June 1, with concerts every Thursday evening through Aug. 3. Stay tuned for more details!