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Cumberland rides a mini-boom

The Baltimore Sun

CUMBERLAND -- Home prices in the Baltimore metro area? Up 5 percent. In the Washington area? Barely budging. In San Diego, Tampa, Las Vegas and several dozen other metros areas? Down, down, down.

But in this corner of Appalachia - in this long-struggling, geographically isolated metro area - home prices have just shot up 17 percent.

The National Association of Realtors, which calculated the change in median price for single-family homes sold in the first quarter of the year vs. the same period last year, says the Cumberland increase topped all other metro areas in the nation. It's a standout in a depressing market, a turnaround community that for years had stagnating or declining values.

It's not a delayed replica of the Baltimore-Washington boom, nor is it a tale of extremely long-distance commuters. The nearly 2 1/2 -hour trek to Baltimore or Washington - one way - means few want to commit to driving it daily. Instead, the area is attracting retirees, second-home buyers looking for a mountain getaway and workers who can telecommute.

People who left years ago for better-paying jobs and others who never before set foot in the place are taking a serious look now that the metro area - the city of Cumberland in particular - has spruced up to attract tourists and artists. The median home price is $100,000. It's not hard to see the appeal of that, what with the Baltimore area almost three times more expensive and the Washington area four times pricier.

"The houses were so expensive in Montgomery County, so I got away from the craziness," said telecommuter Kate Kidwell, 41, whose mortgage payment on the $80,000 house she bought in Cumberland in 2005 - a charming three-bedroom with a brick facade - is half what her rent had been for a one-bedroom apartment in Germantown.

The metro area, which includes Western Maryland's Allegany County and Mineral County, W.Va., is less crazy in many ways. Traffic jams are uncommon; people are fewer and farther between. The pace is slower - everyone who has lived elsewhere remarks on that. Neighbors notice the burned-out bulb in your front-porch light when you're on vacation and replace it for you, as Kidwell discovered. Gas stations let you pump first and then pay.

The breathless outbidding and rapid-fire sales of the Baltimore area at the height of its boom haven't gotten here, either. The average Allegany County home sits on the market for more than 100 days, according to Rockville-based Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc. Average sellers get only a bit more than 90 percent of their asking price.

One of Maryland's poorest counties, Allegany was nevertheless also one of the few places in the state at the height of the nationwide housing boom where an average couple with local jobs could afford the average house.

But those home prices - though still among the cheapest in the U.S. - have risen a lot in the past few years. They jumped 20 percent in the metro area in 2005, according to the National Association of Realtors, and rose a more modest but still well-above-average 10 percent last year.

"Anytime there is a large price differential between ... neighboring regions, then the low-price region eventually catches up," said Lawrence Yun, senior economist with the Realtors group. "Cumberland is catching a little wave."

Developers are noticing.

A Columbia-based company wants to build a 4,300-unit planned community in eastern Allegany, which would increase by more than 10 percent the number of homes in the county. The plan, opposed by a group of residents and by the Maryland Department of Planning, is making its way through the courts.

Cumberland, meanwhile, is seeing a mini-building boom. Only one home was erected in the city in 2001, but about 100 are under construction now, said Mayor Lee N. Fiedler. That's nearly as many new homes as the city saw in the whole of the 1990s, census numbers show. And rehab permits are way up, Fiedler said, a good thing for a community with many old, tired-looking buildings.

"Little houses that used to be unremarkable homes are now becoming very nice showplaces," said Debbie Grimm, office manager at Long & Foster in Cumberland and Short Gap, W.Va. "We're even now seeing places where a buyer will buy a house and tear it down and put something else there. So it's all happening - finally. It's been a long wait."

Michael A. Joy, a builder and developer from Washington, just finished renovating an old hardware store into seven loft apartments renting for $950 to $1,500 a month, expensive for the area but all snapped up before he had a chance to advertise. (The highest-cost loft comes with a Jacuzzi.) He has several other projects under way in Cumberland and Frostburg to the west, including new single-family homes. The first one just sold for an eye-opening - for Allegany County - $425,000.

He recently poked his head into that almost-finished house, a five-bedroom, 3 1/2 -bath Colonial that will go to a family relocating from the Washington region. He thinks it's inevitable that prices will continue to go up. They're way too low, in his opinion.

Joy couldn't contain himself as he maneuvered his Chevy Suburban up and down the hills of Washington Street, where Cumberland's long-dead titans of industry built impressive homes. Everywhere he looked were prices he couldn't believe.

"$195,000," he said, gesturing at a duplex under contract. "For both."

With its stately 19th-century homes, Washington Street is a popular rehabbing spot. Tim Walbert, 50, is renovating one, a three-level with vaulted ceilings that his family bought in 2005 and moved into last summer.

He grew up in the county but left for college and work, as did many others. Like Baltimore, Allegany has suffered from a long loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs and an attendant loss of population. Walbert, who wanted to work in television, knew he'd have to go.

But now he's a freelance director and producer working in far-flung locations on a semi-regular basis. He can drive to Washington when he needs to fly. So he came home to a place where the seasons are vibrant and the mountains omnipresent. (And since he did so in 2000, he sold his house in the move to Washington Street last year for 40 percent more than he had paid.)

"A lot of the things I remember as a kid are still here, very familiar - just the general atmosphere of safety, comfort, beauty," said Walbert, a father of three who relocated from Columbia, which has a population roughly equal to Allegany and Mineral counties combined.

Familiarity aside, in the past few years the city has gone noticeably upscale in its battle to get people to visit, spend, stay. There are classy restaurants with outdoor seating; shops selling fashionable clothing, knockoff designer bags and gourmet desserts; art shows and live theater. On Friday nights during the summer, several thousand gather for free concerts.

Andy Vick, executive director of the Allegany Arts Council, thinks twin efforts in the past few years - to recruit artists to the area and inject new life into downtown Cumberland - help explain the surging interest in Allegany County living. Dozens of artists have moved in, he said, and more keep calling for information.

"The only thing that's slowing it down, in my opinion, is the real estate bargains that existed five years ago ... are no longer quite the bargain," said Vick, sitting in his office in the Cumberland pedestrian mall, a stretch of neat old buildings that was mostly vacant a decade ago and is now mostly filled.

Steve and Sally Colby were running a business in Hagerstown but decided to move to Cumberland and open an eclectic home furnishings store downtown last year, so impressed were they with the revitalization. Steve Colby, raised in the Washington area, remembers when Georgetown gentrified. Downtown Cumberland reminds him of those days.

But there's an ineffable difference, too, a small-town-ness that isn't being gentrified out.

"Everybody's so friendly here," said Colby, pop music drifting through the store, his Jack Russell terrier curled up on the counter in front of him. "You feel like you belong."

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