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The Main Street Approach to Revitalizing Communities

by Lynda McDaniel

Photo Gallery
Photo of downtown Cumberland, Maryland

Two years ago, when Jennifer and David Kauffman were searching for a community with a vibrant downtown, they chose Cumberland, Maryland. Their timing was perfect. Had they visited just a year or two earlier, they might have driven on by.

During the last two decades, Cumberland's downtown had declined as industries left and new suburban malls opened. But that was before Sue Cerutti and Ed Mullaney teamed up in 1998 as managers of the Downtown Cumberland Main Street Maryland program. Together, they counseled the Kauffmans on funding available through the city to help them establish their music store, and provided promotional assistance with the store's grand opening and other events. Today Kauffman Music is busy with children and adult visitors, a guest artist series, and the Sesame Street Music Works program introducing music to preschoolers; upstairs, the Cumberland Music Academy offers private lessons and music classes, and features a warren of practice rooms.

Kauffman Music is just one of the success stories of the Downtown Cumberland program. Renovated buildings, new businesses, added jobs, and well-attended events have created a new attitude about the three-block, red-brick pedestrian mall.

"We believe the downtown reflects who you are as a people," Cerutti says. "When we started, many buildings were vacant and attitudes were bad about the future of downtown. Four years later, we sometimes struggle to find places for people to buy or lease."

Teaming Up for Change

Both Cerutti and Mullaney grew up in Allegany County. Cerutti served as director of the Area Agency on Aging in Allegany County for 12 years and spent two years in Pittsburgh as a community organizer for the city. Mullaney was trained as a teacher, but had to move to Montgomery County, Maryland, to find work.

"It felt as though I spent my whole 30-year career trying to build a sense of community, because the Washington area is so transient," he says. "When I retired here, I wanted to help maintain the sense of community that was already here."

Although Cerutti and Mullaney are co-managers of the Downtown Cumberland program, both technically working part-time, they keep hectic schedules. Cerutti focuses on redevelopment projects, while Mullaney specializes in promotions and events. Working as a team, they help ease people and projects through the roadblocks and tie-ups that often occur in the course of redevelopment. And their teamwork is paying off. In just four years, the community has seen 66 businesses open, 12 businesses expand, 519 full-time jobs and 120 part-time jobs created, 17,525 volunteer hours donated, and $19,720,575 in capital expended. Cumberland's economic revitalization has also been helped by its location. At the center of a tri-state region, Cumberland's downtown now draws people from nearby counties in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Cumberland's downtown project is part of the Main Street Maryland program, created by the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development to strengthen economic redevelopment of downtowns and surrounding neighborhoods. The state program is modeled on the Main Street Approach developed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation's National Main Street Center. This program has been implemented in more than 1,400 communities nationwide, with economic outcomes that reflect a reinvestment ratio of $30 for every $1 used to support a local program. Funding support for Cumberland's downtown efforts has included city and state funds, as well as grants from the Appalachian Regional Commission's Entrepreneurship Initiative.

The Main Street Approach addresses four key points of downtown revitalization: organization, design, economic restructuring, and promotion. From the beginning, the watchword of the Cumberland organizational process has been inclusiveness, as Cerutti and Mullaney create an atmosphere that welcomes everyone from individuals and consumer groups to businesses and financial institutions.

Bringing Buildings Back to Life

The Main Street Approach's design component has been a natural for Cumberland, given the wealth of nineteenth-century architecture in the downtown. Stunning brick buildings, churches with soaring steeples, and Victorian-era homes are the legacy of Cumberland's boom days, when it was the second-largest city in the state. Dubbed the "Queen City," it was a major transportation and industrial hub from the mid 1800s, when the B&O Railroad and C&O Canal thrived here. Coal and tin mining, and, later, tire, glass, and synthetic-fiber manufacturing also contributed to Cumberland's prosperity, which lasted into the mid twentieth century.

The industrial base waned, however. Without good roads, Cumberland found itself isolated. Not until 1991, when Interstate 68 was completed, did things begin to change. Eventually economic vitality began to re-emerge. Two new correctional institutions moved into the area, bringing new jobs. Several small manufacturers, such as Bayliner Marine Corporation (boats), Biederlack of America (blankets), and Hunter Douglas (window coverings) arrived, and even a commuter airline, Boston-Maine Airways, offering commuter service between Cumberland/Hagerstown and Baltimore, moved in.

This decade of gradual economic recovery is being complemented by Cumberland's downtown revitalization efforts. Since 1998, almost $20 million in capital investment has gone into the adaptive reuse of Cumberland's downtown buildings through private and public partnerships. Federal, state, and city tax credits of up to 55 cents on the dollar have also assisted with the remodeling of buildings, including the Rosenbaum Brothers Department Store into the M&T Bank and the two buildings that now house CBIZ Benefits and Insurance Services. CBIZ, a national service center for 401(k) plan administration and small commercial and personal insurance products, employs 150 workers and relies on local colleges to provide a trained workforce.

"We endow the chair of Frostburg State University actuarial sciences so that we have a steady stream of math majors," says Marc Zanger, CEO of CBIZ. "We use a lot of interns through that program."

Allegany College of Maryland is also a key player downtown, especially since moving its School of Hospitality, Tourism, and Culinary Arts into a four-story building that formerly housed a variety store. The county, which owns the building, contributed half of the conversion cost to create the state-of-the-art school and Culinaire Cafe, where students get hands-on, on-the-job training. An Appalachian Regional Commission grant helped with the school's relocation in April 2001, as well as with equipment purchases.

"That first year, people weren't sure what we were going to do here," recalls David L. Sanford, director of the culinary arts program. "The owner of M&M Bake Shop thought we were going to open the Ford Motors of doughnut shops, and it took many meetings to explain our plan. Now, we're very good friends. Besides, competition in a restaurant cluster can be good—it draws people downtown."

To accomplish economic restructuring of the downtown area, a committee chaired by Jeff Rhodes, director of community development for the city of Cumberland, worked with public agencies and local financial institutions to develop a $300,000 loan pool for assisting existing and new businesses. In addition, the Uptown Downtown business incubator provides support to entrepreneurs developing niche and specialty markets downtown. Mel Martin's yarn shop, Millicent's Knits and Yarns, is a recent graduate of Uptown Downtown and has become a welcomed destination for people from a four-county area. After retiring, when Martin and her husband were looking for a place to settle, Martin met Cerutti and asked her where she could sell her children's knitwear. "She answered, 'Oh, there are plenty of places to sell the knitwear, but we don't have a yarn shop. Want to open one?' " Since Martin's store opened, she says, "Knitters are coming out of the woodwork. They tell me they haven't been downtown in so long, but now they have a good reason to come back."

Cerutti is currently working on the next downtown incubator, which will feature scattered-site antique shops. In cooperation with the Maryland Smart Growth program, which includes such initiatives as Live Near Your Work, Cumberland recently obtained an Arts and Entertainment District designation, which will help encourage art and antique stores to locate in the downtown area.

In addition to the loan pool and incubator centers, Cumberland's economic restructuring plans include exploring modern telecommunications options that allow people to live in town and telecommute. And several new museums are already open, such as the Allegany County Museum.

Drawing People Downtown

Beautiful buildings are a start, but Mullaney's experience with extracurricular school programs helped create a strong promotions campaign to bring people to the buildings. He understood that students raised in a world of suburban malls don't have an affinity with downtown, and he tailored events to their needs. Prom night, for example, featured free carriage rides and photographs downtown, which in turn resulted in packed downtown restaurants.

Friday After Five, Mullaney's first and most popular promotion activity, is still a crowd pleaser. He credits the concept to Charlottesville, Virginia, which also has a pedestrian mall. Mullaney enlisted his cousin's band, which donated its services, and showed a movie on the side of a building and called it a "drive-in." "One thing led to another. Now we have people calling us who want to perform," he says. "Our events attract an eclectic blend of the community. And that's exactly what we want-this is everybody's downtown."

Many of the promotional activities require more creativity than money—like the farmers' markets (which have already expanded to two days a week), the flower sales in May, and a popular event in which every window downtown was lit one Friday night. "It looked gorgeous. We made the front page of the newspaper with a color shot. And that event has spurred many more ideas," he adds. Other events include the St. Patrick's Day pub crawl, the National Road Rally in May, and the Back-to-School Bash and Celtic Fest in September.

While downtown redevelopment is a long-term process, the momentum here is palpable. Cumberland has once again become a hub.

"You have to succeed a little at a time," Cerutti says. "First, we worked to get everyone involved. Then, as they take ownership, the program becomes theirs, not ours. That's when it really starts to work. We have so many ideas yet to implement, and the people here are running with them."

Lynda McDaniel is a freelance writer based in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Two other western Maryland communities—Oakland and Frostburg—are also actively involved in the Main Street Approach.


Oakland's efforts over the past four years have earned it the designation "National Main Street Community" by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. An Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) Entrepreneurship Initiative grant helps fund professional management for the community's efforts; Glenn Tolbert, manager of Oakland's program, reports that plans are also under way to hire a consultant to assist with business recruitment.

Highlights of Oakland's Main Street activities include:

  • A $1.5 million renovation of the train station and autumn train rides through the mountain landscape.
  • Construction of an outdoor pavilion and town park surrounding the station.
  • Creation of 20 new businesses (that have created 70 new jobs).
  • Private/public building improvements totaling nearly $2 million.


Frostburg's Main Street manager, Terry Necciai, reports that at least 14 new businesses have opened in the downtown over the last 18 months, four of them in the past four months.

Main Street events and activities include:

  • Five recently opened or expanded restaurants and/or pubs, in addition to ten established restaurants, that are making the downtown a thriving entertainment destination.
  • Conversion of a vacant auto showroom to a new community center, funded by a state Community Legacy Program grant.
  • A dozen or more building-façade improvements under way.
  • Installation of new sidewalks and 139 new street lights, also the result of Community Legacy funding, that allow visitors to walk from one end of town to the other. In May, a walkathon was held to show off the new streetscape.

Both downtown revitalization efforts have received funding through the Maryland ARC technical assistance program. Maryland's ARC program is directed through the Office of the Governor and coordinated and managed by the Maryland Department of Planning.

Lynda McDaniel is a freelance writer based in Fredericksburg, Virginia.