Summer concert series offers a preview of what’s possible with a downtown park and music venue, advocates say

Musicians on a stage
The all-woman Mariachi band Flor De Toloache performs on July 12 — as the first artists in the Levitt AMP Harrisonburg Music Series. (Photo by Avery Goodstine)

By Avery Goodstine, contributor

On a clear Wednesday evening in July, people crowded the sidewalks along South Liberty Street as Mariachi music bounced off the walls of downtown Harrisonburg’s buildings. 

The band Flor De Toloache – a Latin Grammy-winning group of all women – was the first of 10 artists to take the stage during this year’s inaugural Levitt AMP Harrisonburg Music Series. Hundreds of people of all ages took shelter from the sun under the Turner Pavilion while others covered the grassy area with blankets and chairs, clapping along with the music.

Barbara Camph, a Rockingham resident who attended most of the concerts this summer, had joined her friends under the Turner Pavilion to watch. 

“It makes a couple of hours just a really enjoyable, rich experience,” she said, as Flor De Toloache caught the crowd’s attention with their fast-paced guitar rhythms and their pitch-perfect harmonies.  

The concert series, put on by Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance, is funded with a $30,000 grant the city won last November from the Levitt Foundation. The foundation partners with cities to “activate underused public spaces through the power of free live music,” according to Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance’s website.  The concerts are held 6 p.m. every Wednesday through Sept. 30 and span widely different genres.   

With the most attendees for a single show reaching around 1,650, Andrea Dono, HDR’s executive director said in an email that the support for these concerts “shows that there is demand for this type of programming and for a permanent venue.” 

That organization and Build our Park – a local nonprofit group – have been collaborating to build a park downtown that will include a permanent, outdoor music venue. The plan would be for the new park to cover the spaces now occupied by Turner Pavilion, the municipal parking lot north of the pavilion, the grassy area next to the pavilion and the two gravel lots behind the pavilion area past Warren Street to the south.

This summer’s series has galvanized interest among the concert-goers. 

“The fact that people can get together and see each other somehow seems, to me, a really important priority in terms of knitting all of us together,” Camph said.

People sitting in lawn chairs and on blankets on the grass
The crowd enjoys music of the Mariachi band Flor De Toloache during the first Levitt AMP Harrisonburg Music Series performance in July. (Photo by Avery Goodstine)

Erin Bishop, Build our Park’s vice president, said the park has been a part of the city’s master 2040 plan, which proposes 20 action steps or recommendations for downtown Harrisonburg. According to the plan, it acts as a “guiding document to inspire change, raise funds, direct public spending, and form lasting partnerships to make real improvements in Downtown over the next 20 years.”

The park project is projected to take 15 to 20 years to complete, Bishop said, and will cost between $1.2 and $3 million, which will be privately funded through Build our Park. 

On Jan. 24, Bishop presented Build our Park’s mission to the Harrisonburg City Council, seeking its support for the plan and to continue collaborating with city staff on the project. The council unanimously gave the go-ahead.

Because of the project’s scope, Bishop said it will require two or three phases which will be determined during the next planning step. Bishop said she plans to present to City Council again early next year. 

While not official yet, Bishop said it’s likely construction will start in the space covering the two gravel lots and the grassy area. 

“All of our current conceptual planning and feasibility shows that that is the ideal space within the bounds of the future park for a permanent or semi-permanent staging location,” Bishop said. “So that is most likely where a future stage would be located.”

That first phase will “definitely” happen within three-to-five years, she said.

The second phase most likely will include reshaping the space where the municipal Water Street parking deck sits. While it’s possible the park might take up some of that current parking space, Bishop said any removal of parking spots would be contingent on new spots being built, something she sees as a possibility because the current parking deck is “definitely approaching the end of its life.”

“The idea of removing a large portion, or a majority of the paved lot that’s currently the municipal lot would be almost entirely, if not entirely dependent upon a redevelopment of that parking deck or … a major parking solution,” Bishop said.

In the meantime, the Levitt AMP concert series has been “inspiring,” Bishop said, especially for people who’ve been working on the park project since the beginning.

“It’s injecting new users into the space,” she said. “It’s kind of reopening the community’s eyes to what they’ve been hoping for to come out of this space.” 

Bishop and her family have attended all of the Levitt AMP concerts so far and she said they’re not planning on missing the last few. 

“The way that we’re able to go there each week and just be with friends and meet new people and, always, dogs,” Bishop said. The Bishops have also added to the canine attendance figures by bringing their new puppy along. 

A rendering in Harrisonburg’s 2040 plan shows a possible design for a new downtown park. (Photo from the city’s 2040 plan)

While Harrisonburg has plenty of indoor music venues downtown, a dedicated spot outdoors would offer a different vibe and potentially foster more interaction among attendees, Camph said. 

Proponents of the park and outdoor venue agree that the series has confirmed such demand. 

“It is our hope,” Dono wrote in her email, “that the AMP series shows that this area could better serve the community as a beautiful gathering space with a stage.” 

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