Cambridge hopes Sailwinds blows in cash

June 08, 1993|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Staff Writer

CAMBRIDGE -- It hasn't helped the collective psyche of this hardscrabble but colorful town -- the place where sharpshooter Annie Oakley retired, novelist John Barth grew up and militant H. Rap Brown sparked an uprising -- that many of its neighbors regard it as the ugly duckling of Eastern Shore communities.

But spirits in Cambridge are soaring lately with the promise of a waterfront make-over in the form of Sailwinds Park, a bold development plan designed to bolster the town's economy -- and self-esteem -- by eventually spending $35 million to transform 31 waterfront acres into a tourist center akin to Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

Although remedies have been elusive, the problems plaguing Dorchester County's largest town are hard to ignore.

Unemployment is widespread. With 11.7 percent of its work force out of a job, Dorchester ranks second only to Somerset County as having the most bleak economic picture on the Eastern Shore.

Efforts by local officials to secure manufacturing jobs have met with minimal success. While the poultry industry remains steady, commercial watermen have been hurt by poor harvests. The construction business, bound by state and federal wetlands regulations, limps along.

Across the Choptank River in Talbot County, real estate prices are routinely 30 percent to 50 percent higher. It's not that the land in tony Talbot is any better. It's that Cambridge and Dorchester County have a reputation as being a gritty, mosquito-ridden nether land.

Developers, promising to transform the dowdy waterfront of Cambridge Creek into a sparkling mecca of marinas, restaurants and condos, flirted with local residents twice in the last decade.

On both occasions, plans were abandoned for lack of funding or local support.

Cambridge, with under 12,000 residents, continued its slide on the banks of the Choptank.

"Cambridge has had so many setbacks -- not failures -- but disappointing setbacks," says Ray Stevens, a prominent local businessman. "You get beat up enough, you start wondering if there's something wrong with you."

It's a wonder, then, that there's any enthusiasm for Sailwinds Park.

Modest launch planned

Unlike previous projects that looked first to getting a hotel and marina as development anchors, Sailwinds is designed to start modestly with landscaping and a visitors center.

Only after Cambridge is able to prove to private investors that the park is a successful attraction do planners expect to see construction of a 180-slip marina, a restaurant and a 300-room hotel.

The premise behind Sailwinds is simple: Tap into the lucrative stream of ocean-bound tourists who drive across the Choptank River and through Cambridge each week.

If Cambridge has nothing else, it has plenty of waterfront and history -- two features that other Shore towns such as St. Michaels use to keep the cash registers ringing.

Sailwinds detractors say the tourism industry is too uncertain to sustain a healthy economy. Manufacturing jobs, they contend, provide a better financial backbone.

But supporters tout Sailwinds as more than just a rejuvenation of land. In many circles, the mere mention of Cambridge conjures memories of racial strife. The conflagrations of the Sixties, during which a block of buildings burned and National Guardsmen were called in to keep the peace at gunpoint, left Cambridge with a brand it has been unable to hide.

"I think Sailwinds Park can do a lot toward healing this community," says Evelyn Townsend, president of the Harriet Tubman Coalition, a community group named after the Dorchester-born slave who helped establish the Underground Railroad.

"It's the first time all people have been involved in a project like this, that all people have been invited to participate from the ground level," Mrs. Townsend said.

"Frankly, I'm all for it," says Mr. Stevens. "Either we progress together or we all suffer together. As far as I'm concerned, there's been enough suffering here."

In a town known for its internal squabbling, why the change of heart?

Listen to C. Robert Spedden, a Dorchester native who looks a lot like Lee Iacocca and who probably could talk the former Chrysler Corp. chairman into buying a foreign car.

"Cambridge has got one of the few pieces of waterfront in the state you approach from the front," he says. "We're going to make that waterfront colorful. We're going to make people coming over the bridge wonder what the hell's going on over here."

Mr. Spedden hasn't gotten much sleep lately. As president of Sailwinds -- for which he gets no pay -- and owner of a real estate firm, he's not had much leisure time. But he's on a roll.

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