CAMBRIDGE -- Six or seven years ago, a burned-out building in the downtown business district of this old seafood and canning town would not have drawn much interest. It probably would have wound up as a vacant lot.
But yesterday, more than 200 people turned out in a chill wind, waving signs and lining up to ink petitions to show their support for preserving the brick storefront of a century-old building that was destroyed in a Jan. 15 fire.
And by the end of the day, the marchers got their wish as word came that developer Brett Summers, who has already renovated four downtown properties, had reached an agreement to buy the damaged building so he can restore that, too.
"This really does show the downtown coming back to life," Summers said. "Things are happening here. Things are hopping."
The rally came little more than a week after 200 firefighters from 11 volunteer companies throughout the Eastern Shore battled the seven-alarm blaze in the 400 block of Race St. The fire destroyed the rear wall, roof and interior of the building in a block that housed two antiques shops.
Next door, the fire also caused smoke and water damage to the old McCrory's department store, which Summers renovated into apartments with restaurant space downstairs.
Local and state preservation groups told the crowd that $300,000 in grants have been lined up, money that can be used to shore up the remaining brick wall of the fire-damaged building, which was built in 1912.
Included in the total is an emergency grant of $5,000 used to hire an engineering firm that declared the facade of the building at 444-448 Race St. structurally safe.
A bemused Tony Thomas stood by yesterday, clutching a hot cup of coffee as he listened to speakers praising activists who had rounded up grant money to help keep downtown revitalization on track.
Twelve years ago, when he opened the Canvasback Restaurant, half a block up Race Street from last week's fire scene, folks thought he was a bit crazy to take a chance on a beleaguered and battered downtown.
As it turns out, Thomas was just a little ahead of his time. These days, he is the old-timer surrounded by nearly a dozen restoration projects that have come to fruition in the past four or five years.
"There's no way it would have happened back then," Thomas said. "I'd like to see the integrity of the town intact. Rebuild it as it was. The ball's rolling now with the businesses downtown."
Still, Thomas says many small businesses have lost money since the fire, as police continue to block pedestrian traffic across from the burned building.
Donnie Wooten, who has owned a sports clothing store there for 20 years, agrees that the building should be saved. He just hopes the pace of restoration picks up.
"I don't have a problem as long as that structure is solid," Wooten said. "I remember shopping in all these stores when downtown was busy. I don't have a problem with Cambridge looking like Cambridge. I just wish they'd get on with it."
Engineers are moving ahead to develop a plan for shoring up the structure that housed the two shops, said Liddy Garcia-Bunuel, executive director of Cambridge Main Street, the nonprofit agency that has spearheaded the city's downtown restoration program.
"In a preliminary evaluation, they found the facades to be no threat to the public," Garcia-Bunuel said. "And the preliminary examination showed they can probably can be saved. The engineers are already developing a system."
Today, Summers is scheduled to meet with city officials to work out details of an injunction he won last week that temporarily prevented the city or the property owner, Young Hwang of Florida, from demolishing the facade.
Mayor C.L. Rippons, who has expressed concern about the cost to the city of ensuring public safety while the building awaits further work, said yesterday he wants to meet with state officials about getting financial help for Cambridge.