Entrepreneur invests millions in Cambridge's downtown

Developing a dream

December 02, 2007|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,Sun reporter

CAMBRIDGE -- When Brett Summers first came to this quiet Eastern Shore town a decade ago, he was thinking vacation - a weekend place to keep a boat and escape from the pressures of living on Capitol Hill and the grueling chase for his next sales commission.

But eventually, Cambridge became home to Summers and his family of five. And these days, he's not just living here - he's investing millions of dollars in the struggling downtown business district.

The 44-year-old real estate entrepreneur - along with several partners -- has spent more than $4 million to buy four buildings, turning the long-vacant structures into light-filled storefronts with loft-style apartments upstairs. He has plans for a brew pub, an upscale clothing store, even a spa - all in a place that has endured decades of economic decay.

"I live here. I'm not going anywhere," Summers said. "The more we do to invest in the future of this town, the faster the future will get here."

Summers wasn't the first person to invest in downtown Cambridge. But local leaders say he has become a catalyst in the revival of an urban core that had been declining since the 1950s, when the city's main employer left town and businesses began moving out to U.S. 50.

"I can't think of a time when he hasn't been doing things exactly the right way," said Jim Duffy, a writer who serves on the board of Cambridge Main Street, a group committed to rejuvenating downtown. "He has a long-term vision that we really appreciate. He wants to build this downtown, and he's not out to make a ton of money by tomorrow morning. He wants to do it right."

For Summers, doing it right has meant some interesting - and expensive - adventures. When he couldn't find anyone local to replicate the cornices on the old McCrory building at 450 Race St., he went to a metalworks in New Jersey. Last week, he was driving back on Interstate 95, with the eight tin pieces stuffed into his Chevrolet Suburban.

And when he couldn't find any doors to fit the 10-foot entrance to the building, he had them custom-made out of Brazilian mahogany, with egg-and-dart trim and vintage brass hardware.

Inside, the floors are solid oak and the interior doors are solid core - not those "cheap hollow things" Summers says he often sees in other apartments.

In one of his buildings, he's providing space for an art gallery that Cambridge Main Street will manage to exhibit the work of local artists. Rent will be a small percentage of sales; if they don't make money, neither will he.

Main Street's president, David Harp, a Chesapeake Bay photographer, plans to exhibit his work in the gallery. He says he's grateful that Summers understands the importance of artists to a vibrant downtown.

"In my dictionary, `developer' is not always a good word," said Harp, a former Sun photographer. "But this guy is the real deal. You don't want to be on the other side of him - he has a pretty intense streak when he sees something that isn't being done right."

After Summers went before the City Council to argue that impact fees imposed on him and other downtown developers were discouraging investment, the council agreed to waive the fees for three years on residential projects.

He organized a dozen neighbors to challenge in court a plan to build 28 garage-front townhouses along the Choptank River at the edge of the historic district - not because the plaintiffs are against new real estate, but because they want it to fit in with the area's architecture. When Summers learned that another downtown investor was planning to tear down a dilapidated historic home to make a parking lot, he offered to buy the place himself.

"For him to be a developer, his vision is just so different," said Dana Zarbano, who runs the Cambridge House Bed and Breakfast across the street from Summers' home. "His efforts to restore the character of Cambridge are to benefit everybody - his family, our family, everyone's family, and our visitors."

These days, much of downtown Cambridge is wrapped in plywood and covered in sawdust. Signs adorn Art Deco and boxy brick buildings saying "Future Home of" or "For Lease." One simply says "French food coming soon." A mix of newcomers and natives - better known as "come-heres" and "from-heres" - are opening boutiques and galleries. Just a couple of miles away, the Hyatt Regency Golf Resort Hotel and Spa is drawing thousands of visitors, many of whom have started to shop and eat downtown.

But none of that was here when Summers and his wife, Jamie, first drove through Cambridge in 1997 on their way to Dewey Beach.

An attorney friend of Jamie Summers' was the executor of the will of Virginia Webb, a wealthy Cambridge woman who had recently died. The estate had disposed of all property except for the family home - a brick Federal-style showpiece in the heart of the historic district that had lovely bones but had been vacant for at least a dozen years.

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