People, vitality moving back to Cumberland

NEIGHBORHOOD PROFILE

Prices one attraction

location is another

How about $56,442 for a house?

Not even termites can stop a rehabber

October 19, 2003|By Cindy Stacy | Cindy Stacy,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

So what if the old four-story building in downtown Cumberland used to be a distillery and probably would have to be gutted to create an airy space for both living and working.

To Dave and Margaret Romero, finding exactly the right kind of property to which to move their studio-based businesses and home from Allentown, Pa., was all that mattered.

Sure, the work that lay ahead would be overwhelming, but it was worth whatever money and energy would be necessary to own and rehab a turn-of-the-century brick building with 13-foot ceilings and 8-foot windows. And its top floor was ideal for a residential loft that includes a working elevator.

The Romeros bought the building in February for $133,500 - less than half what they got for their five-bedroom stone house in Allentown.

"We had looked all over the place," said Margaret, 38. "We fell in love with the people and the architecture of Cumberland."

The Western Maryland city of 23,706 was once a major transportation hub during the mid-1800s and an industrial manufacturing force until the mid-20th century, when it fell on hard times. It is working on a rebound, thanks to a bevy of governmental incentive programs and city boosters.

Residential real estate prices averaged $56,442 during the past 12 months, according to Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc. Some business leaders said those figures reflect many homes that were purchased and await renovations.

"Property is still comparatively cheap," said Lee Schwartz, a Cumberland business owner who chairs the Downtown Development Commission. "Many people in the Baltimore area can't believe you can buy an old house on some of Cumberland's side streets for $35,000 to $40,000, put another $60,000 in it and have a real nice classic, urban home for under $100,000."

Last month, the Romeros completed enough of the building's $250,000 renovation work to move into the fourth-floor living quarters. They join a growing number of urban pioneers who hope to bring the mountain town back to life.

"There is so much energy here," said Ed Mullaney, who manages downtown Cumberland along with Sue Cerutti.

Mullaney and Cerutti are city natives who are credited with generating much of Cumberland's newfound vitality and community pride. In the five years since they became managers, they have worked with a variety of coalitions, volunteer beautification committees and partnerships to revitalize the neglected town center by promoting buildings that could serve as homes and businesses.

"We want people who can do business from their home to move here," Mullaney said of the city's effort to market deteriorating commercial buildings as fixer-uppers.

One of the first things Mullaney and Cerutti did was to ask local real estate agents "to get rid of huge for-sale signs in buildings and replace them with ones that said `development opportunity,' " Cerutti said.

Their efforts are aimed at spurring residential and commercial development under Maryland's Main Street program and focus on four things: organization, design, economic restructuring and promotion. They have teamed with city and county economic development leaders, local real estate professionals and others.

"There's no single solution for downtown revitalization," Cerutti said.

Seven artists, including the Romeros and Kauffmans, have settled in downtown. Five have invested about $1.3 million, leveraged against $330,000 in public incentives, said Vickie Swink, the city's economic development coordinator.

The Romeros received a $50,000 state Community Legacy grant to invest in their building as well as other governmental tax incentives. The city freezes property taxes, for example, on a property's prerenovation value for 10 years, said Dave Romero.

Funds are dispersed throughout a rehab's duration.

"They don't just hand you a check," Dave Romero said. "But without this money, this project would have been impossible."

The couple saw an advertisement for Cumberland in an artists' trade magazine. Margaret Romero creates "bodacious benches" for her Blue Star Design Co., while husband Dave runs a photographic and digital design business called Vibrant Image.

David and Jennifer Kauffman own a three-story 1900s-era building on the same block as the Romeros'. Both in their early 30s, the Kauffmans own and operate Kauffman Music and Von Gunter Music House.

The Kauffmans paid $82,500 for the building and have spent about $150,000 on renovations. They also received a $50,000 Community Legacy grant.

"We never thought we'd have the money to buy a building like this," said Jennifer Kauffman, a violinist and the mother of two young children. "We wanted to be as close to our business as possible so we could interact at dinner with our children."

She acknowledged that the store - which maintains a steady business thanks to the patronage of students and instructors from a Kauffman-owned music academy on the second floor - doesn't close until 8 p.m.

"But when we close, we just retreat to our upstairs apartment," she said.

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