Cumberland, Md. divided as residents battle big business bulldozing homes

Thanks to WJLA Channel 7 News & Jay Korff for coming out & Spotlighting us in Western Md. To watch the video for this please go HERE as I cant get it to share at the moment.

 

From afar, Cumberland looks like a thriving, picturesque city nestled in the mountains of Western Maryland. But this former industrial center is among thepoorest towns in America in terms of per capita income.

“We’ve faced a downward trajectory for many decades,” says Shawn Hershberger, Executive Director of the Cumberland Economic Development Corporation.

Since the 1950’s, Cumberland’s population has been cut in half in the wake of plant closings. It’s down to about 20,000 residents.

Cumberland is also sliced in two by Interstate 68. But there’s something else deeply dividing this town.

“I think it’s the most absurd idea I’ve ever heard in my entire life,” says homeowner Susan Bolyard.

A dozen homeowners are locked in a bitter battle with city leaders over the very future of their neighborhood.

Homeowner Woody Gordon says, “A bomb fell out of the sky and managed to land here on our neighborhood.” Woody Gordon is talking about Rolling Mill: a cluster of 67 properties just south of I-68.

More than a year ago the city identified this area as ideal for commercial development, claiming this blighted, high crime community could be transformed into a hub of business activity.

Hershberger says, “It could be any mix of lodging, dining and retail.”

Shawn Hershberger runs the Cumberland Economic Development Corporation: the group heading up the Maryland Avenue Revitalization Project. He believes this undertaking will create jobs, increase the tax base and spur economic growth.

“This administration has decided that we want to try to make a difference,” says Hershberger.

So his group, with more than $2 million in city funds, is buying and bulldozing homes to make way for new businesses. A developer plans to purchase the land from the city and place a variety of businesses on the 6.4 acre tract. But there’s a catch.

People like 82-year-old Walter Moore still live here. “Well I ain’t got any place else to go. I don’t want to go to an old folk’s home,” says Moore.

He and his wife of 62 years have no intention of leaving. And he resents those who think business interests should trump his quality of life.

Moore says, “They have no heart. People like us, they treat us like garbage. Get out. You’re in our road. We don’t want your damn house we want the land.”

Hershberger says in his experience the purchasing of properties has been fair and equitable. But a dozen homeowners, part of a coalition called Save Our Homes Alliance, are holding out.

Susan Bolyard, who says her house was built in 1897 as a wedding present for her great, great aunt, is not budging.

“It’s my home and I’m not selling,” says Bolyard.

Larry and Debbie Darby say they aren’t going anywhere either.

“I guess we’re kind of troublemakers in a sense,” says Debbie Darby.

The Darby’s have made their position quite clear by hanging a huge banner on their home for all interstate travelers to see that says “HANDS OFF OUR HOMES”.

Darby says, “I don’t think the city likes our sign too much.”

Redevelopment supporters argue this neighborhood has been an eyesore for years.

“And that’s one of the reasons why we are doing this project because there are dozens of homes down there that have been in really horrible shape,” says Hershberger.

If you walk around Rolling Mill you’ll see an odd assortment of litter like a row of discarded television sets on a front porch and a couple decaying arm chairs resting in alley ways. It’s hard to know how long those items have been there.

Bolyard says, “This neighborhood was not an eyesore last year. Yes, there were some run down houses. It’s an eyesore now. Because they have bought so many properties and just let them sit and if you look at the house next to me it looks like a jungle.”

Look around and you’ll see clear code violations like yards covered in tall weeds. A city official admitted most of the purchased properties have code violations. But he added the city doesn’t have the time, money or interest to clean up properties that will soon be demolished.

Hershberger says, “If we have a yard that we need to maintain that we need to get somebody down there to mow we will do so. We just got dropped off a bill for yard maintenance today. We’ve tried to keep in front of that.”

Redevelopment supporters also argue crime has plagued Rolling Mill for years so a new start makes sense.

“That neighborhood had the highest concentration of criminal activity in Allegany County. We had people that we purchased homes from that were happy to get out of that neighborhood,” says Hershberger.

According to federal crime statistics from 2014, the latest available, Rolling Mill had a higher crime rate than most Cumberland neighborhoods but not the highest. The city’s police chief tells ABC7 News that back in 2014 Rolling Mill did not have the highest call volume and was not the neighborhood he worried about the most.

If there’s one person who thinks the city’s logic for leveling Rolling Mill is flawed it‘s Woody Gordon. “Well I’m a grown man. It’s painful but I’m totally prepared to fight it,” says Gordon.

He refuses to even negotiate.

Gordon says, “You got the wrong guy. I’m not the guy to pick out to say you need to get out, make us happy, we’ll make you whole. It doesn’t work that way. If you want to make me whole leave me alone.”

This 64-year-old retired railroader outlived the three most important people in his life: his father, mother and brother. To him, their memories are inextricably linked to his home. To him giving in would be selling out.

Gordon says, “And they would flip over in their graves if they thought I was dealing the house away.”

There’s another reason Gordon can’t bear to relocate again. In the late 1960s, as a teenager, his family had to move when I-68 cut through town.

“This is my second time. So that really pisses me off,” says Gordon.

In that case eminent domain applied because there was a public good associated with building an interstate. This coalition of homeowners is worried that eminent domain will be used again. But so far it hasn’t.

Hershberger says, “I can tell you right now we have never threatened it, never brought it up, we have never taken any actions towards the use of eminent domain.”

We’re told what’s more likely for Rolling Mill is what some call a build around. That’s where new businesses and old homes co-exist, side by side, as neighbors.

“It looks like people being built around and that’s not a situation that we want to see not just for the people there and the city as a whole,” says Hershberger.

For some, the home is more than brick and mortar. It’s a place where shared memories create the lasting and unbreakable bonds of family.

For others, all of Cumberland is the home and this land represents a chance to improve a struggling city’s economic trajectory.

Hershberger, who grew up in Cumberland and at one time lived in the Rolling Mill neighborhood says, “What we’re trying to do is not about me, it’s not about this administration, it’s not even about the people down there. This is about the future of this community.”

All Shawn Hershberger wants to do is sit down with disgruntled homeowners and talk.

All Walter Moore wants to do is sit down and enjoy from his porch an ever-changing view he never plans on giving up.

“My life depends on this house,” says Moore.

So far, five properties have been cleared or bulldozed. Within two months, the Cumberland Economic Development Corporation hopes to have at least a couple dozen additional homes bulldozed.

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