City of Cambridge | Dorchester County EDA

The recent opening of Realerevival Brewery in downtown Cambridge – an event celebrated by residents, elected officials and media alike – revealed the new business’s exterior transformation. Two large white-striped burgundy awnings, etched glass, light fixtures and a die-cut aluminum sign now grace the once-worn front. The $16,476 external renovation was funded in part by a $7,500 Façade Improvement Program grant.

Hailed as easy, efficient and cost-effective by both applicants and economic development managers, the façade improvement program has enjoyed great success in Cambridge. Easy to apply and gain approval through a simple application; efficient in helping property owners with costly renovations; and effective in creating inviting, attractive communities, the city recently decided to expand the nature and location of eligible projects and properties.

“While the façade program has been one of our most popular incentives, we’re always looking for ways we can make it even more effective,” said Cambridge Economic Development Director Natalie Chabot, adding, “thanks to the City’s recent actions, more businesses and homeowners could be eligible for these reimbursable grant funds.”

Since 2012, Cambridge has received $100,000 for this program and has seven commercial and residential applicants in the pipeline including Realerival and Choptank Charlie’s façade improvement projects. With the Council’s approval, the City’s Economic Development Department applied for another $75,000 grant from the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development for fiscal year 2014 to provide this resource to the community on a continual basis.

When developing the program, City staff looked at other jurisdictions to identify best practices that Cambridge could use to leverage improvements. One such jurisdiction that has also enjoyed great success enhancing the town’s “curb appeal,” is Ocean City.

In the 11 years since Glen Irwin launched the Ocean City Development Corporation’s façade improvement program, the town has completed 145 projects totaling $650,000. “This proved to be one of most effective and easiest programs to implement that we have,” he said.

“As we were designing architectural standards for new building construction, we wanted to help existing property owners with renovations that reflected the ‘Old Ocean City’ standards we required for new construction.” Irwin explained the OC program originally reimbursed 50% for projects up to $5,000; however they lowered the rate five years ago to 33%.

By comparison and based upon a $15,000 limit, Cambridge residential owner-occupied properties are eligible to receive up to 65% – or $9,750 — for qualified projects. Businesses can receive 50% or up to $7,500 for qualifying projects. (Residential and commercial landlords can receive one third of the cost back.) All eligible façade improvement projects are funded on a reimbursable basis after being pre-approved by the Cambridge façade review committee on a first come, first serve basis.

The program’s success led Cambridge Mayor Jackson Stanley and the City Commissioners to expand eligibility requirements. In July, they voted to increase the boundaries for qualifying properties and added demolition to the list of qualified improvements. To formalize the change, they submitted a request for a grant amendment to the state, which is still pending.

One small business owner who recently completed a qualifying façade improvement project is Jack Hegleson, proprietor of Choptank Charlie’s. The housewares, collectibles and artworks store occupies a small, visible space in the 500 block of Poplar Street, across from the Dorchester Chamber of Commerce.

Hegleson applied – and was approved – to ‘”dress up my plain storefront which didn’t stand out against the beautiful backdrop of this historic town” by adding new awnings, storefront sign and window boxes to his year-old business. “As a small business, I wanted to work with other local businesses so I enlisted Cambridge Sailcloth and Canvas to design and fabricate beautiful, three-colored awnings.” Hegleson also painted the door and installed a ‘new’ sign he recycled from an existing one.

Choptank Charlie’s $1,950 façade improvements make his storefront shine. “Every penny counts when you’re running a small business,” Hegleson says, “the program is brilliant and eases the burden of adhering to costly historic preservation standards.” Adding a little sweat equity to the investment, he is constructing custom window boxes to complete his façade transformation.

For a complete list of eligible streets and details on the application process, contact the Cambridge Economic Development Office at 410-221-6074 or Sherise Mobley, Maple Street Coordinator at 443-477-3237.