FOCUS 2024 | Remote work, housing and recreation called keys to reversing region’s population decline

Feb. 24—CUMBERLAND — During the pandemic lockdown, Anne Arundel County resident Laura McElhaney, an empty-nester and remote worker who specializes in regulatory compliance, decided to look for a house in Western Maryland.

She’d visited the area numerous times, but had never been to Cumberland.

While house-hunting with her daughter in Garrett County, they saw an online listing for a house for sale on Washington Street in Cumberland, and decided to check it out.

“It was like driving into a storybook,” McElhaney said of entering Cumberland and seeing businesses, including a book store, restaurants and theater, “all surrounded by the mountains.”

As they approached Washington Street, she was awestruck by the brick sidewalks and architecture.

“I was just in shock,” McElhaney, who has lived in areas across the country, said. “I fell in love.”

She moved to Cumberland in 2020, rented a home and got to know the area, then purchased the house on Washington Street.

Now, nearly four years later, “I love it,” McElhaney said of living in the Queen City — and talked of “the massive amounts of history.”

She said she’s met several other newcomers to the city.

Residents “are amazing,” she said and added the area is “breathtakingly beautiful.”

Shrinking population

Although many folks across the country, like McElhaney, moved from urban to rural areas during the pandemic, one migration trend isn’t enough to replenish a population that’s been decreasing for decades.

World Population Review estimates Allegany County’s 2024 population at 66,419 with a growth rate of -0.63% in the past year, based on the most recent United States census data.

WPR’s online data, which starts in 1790, shows the county’s population peaked at 89,556 in 1950, and has been shrinking most of the time since then.

That tendency is not unique to Allegany County.

“We’re seeing it on a national basis,” said Al Delia, vice president for regional development and engagement at Frostburg State University.

Many people have moved from rural to urban areas in order to find work with adequate pay.

“That’s where the jobs have been created,” he said, pointing to larger cities such as Boston and Phoenix that have experienced population growth in recent years.

Recreation a draw

Recreational opportunities in Allegany and Garrett counties attract many visitors to the area.

“That’s great,” Delia said. But, he added, the area needs to “attract people and industry forever.”

One way to help make that happen is to create companies that manufacture equipment for outdoor activities including fishing, hiking, biking and boating here, where the products can be tested “in the backyard,” he said.

FSU recently received a $1.4 million grant to establish the Outdoor Recreational Economy Institute, which is creating networks and opportunities to attract businesses to the area.

‘Permanent change’

Delia also talked of attracting remote workers.

One of the lessons the pandemic provided is that a lot of work and meetings can happen online more efficiently than in-office and in-person setups.

“That’s a permanent change,” Delia said.

But people who can and want to work from home need, well, a home.

Locally, the quality of housing “is not what young professionals want,” Delia said of aging buildings that need to be repaired and in many cases remodeled, versus more desirable maintenance-free homes.

FSU is working with developers to renovate blighted buildings and create more housing for workers.

“We’re early in the process,” Delia said and added he’s optimistic for the area’s future success.

At the core is addressing the area’s population decline, he said.

“We have to reverse that,” Delia said.

“We have lots of work to do,” he said. “It’s not going to happen overnight.”

Teresa McMinn is a reporter for the Cumberland Times-News. She can be reached at 304-639-2371 or

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