Struggling Cambridge readjusts as a resort town

Cambridge is easy to miss.

The city sits off U.S. 50 along the banks of the Choptank River and often goes unnoticed by motorists on their way to Ocean City. But many residents here hope that changes soon.

Since the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay resort opened here last year, tourism has become the city's top draw. And developers are proposing thousands of new homes for the open space and waterfront land in the area.

"I get into conversations with other people in the planning and zoning business and the buzz is all Cambridge," says Sharon Johnston, a Realtor with Long & Foster Cos.

In an area that never has drawn much attention to itself, city leaders believe that buzz may be just what is needed to shake off a decades-long economic slump and bring new energy to the region.

Cambridge was founded in 1684 as the seat of Dorchester County and named after the English city that is home to Cambridge University.

From its earliest years, the Maryland community was a thriving center for agriculture. And the city, one of the state's only two deep-water ports, became a prime location for shipping and seafood industries, according to a history of the area recently compiled by city officials.

The area's economy began suffering in the 1950s, when food packing operations moved elsewhere. And until the Hyatt opened, the largest employer in the area was Icelandic USA Inc., a frozen seafood company that employs about 400 at a processing plant here, Mayor Cleveland Rippons said. Hyatt officials said they employ about 500 people.

Other job opportunities

Nearby towns, such as Easton in Talbot County, provide further job opportunities.

Rippons says every job created is a boost for the area. "You work on those small little victories," he says.

The city's population declined by about 500 people between 1990 and 2000 to just under 11,000 residents. But city leaders said those numbers are growing.

Several developers have proposed building 5,000 new housing units in the area over the next few years. City leaders say they are working to plan the developments to preserve the town's character.

"We love our past but we also have to build a future," Rippons says.

The proposed developments envision expanding Cambridge geographically by having the city annex adjacent land. Lynn Thomas, a Cambridge city planner, said some proposals could involve annexing 700 to 1,000 acres.

Johnston of Long & Foster says that the new housing includes single family detached homes, townhouses and waterfront properties.

'Affordable economy'

"There seems to be a lot of open space in an affordable economy," she says.

She credits the area's growing popularity to its waterfront and laid-back atmosphere. "People are realizing life's too short to be stuck in the city," she says.

Home prices in the area have remained steady during the past year, averaging $130,000, some real estate agents said. Some Realtors believe property values will increase as the area continues to grow.

"They want to get in now, they want to get their foot in the door," says Mike Walsh, general manager at the Hyatt. He compares the opportunities in Cambridge to the ones that existed in nearby Kent Island and Easton a few years ago. "Now's the time to get in the Cambridge and Dorchester area."

90% occupancy rate

Walsh estimates that the 400-room resort has had an occupancy rate above 90 percent every weekend since the end of May. By taking advantage of Cambridge's restaurants, shops and waterfront recreational opportunities, the visitors are breathing new life into the long-overlooked community.

And they seem to like what they're seeing. Local tourism officials say they've seen an increase lately in visitors looking to retire, relocate or buy summer homes in the area.

The city's charm is a secret that many residents have known for a long time. Charles Kelly has lived in Cambridge his whole life. He and his wife Karen have raised three children in the area.

As far as Kelly is concerned, those outside of Cambridge are just now discovering what he's known all along.

"You couldn't make me move," he says. "I'll spend the rest of my days here."

Commuting time to downtown Baltimore: 90 minutes

Public schools: Cambridge-South Dorchester High School, Maces Lane Middle School, Choptank Elementary School, Sandy Hill Elementary. School Maple Elementary School

Shopping: Shops on Race Street and U.S. 50; Salisbury and Annapolis

ZIP code: 21613