Character Over Caffeine

Posted April 15, 2009, at 7:34 p.m.

Character trumps chain caffeine in Camden. So it would seem, as opposition in the coastal Knox County town has organized to block a Dunkin’ Donuts franchise from opening in the downtown.

Residents of more gritty, blue-collar Maine towns probably are inclined to roll their eyes at a town that would give the bum’s rush to a business with a record of success that wants to move into a vacant storefront.

Camden has a well-developed sense of itself, and its pride in its appearance has paid economic dividends. Though it lost its manufacturing base by the 1970s, just like many Maine towns, Camden was blessed with the arrival of credit card giant MBNA; the firm’s unprecedented growth through the 1990s resulted in a huge influx of money in the area.

But before and after the MBNA years, Camden was a tourist destination, carrying a cachet with visitors on par with Kennebunkport, Boothbay Harbor and Bar Harbor. Town leaders have known the value of that industry and made decisions about investing in parks, streets and sidewalks, law enforcement, liquor licenses and noise and sign ordinances with the many restaurants, bars, coffee shops, bed-and-breakfast inns, hotels and shops in mind.

Camden’s harbor also is a calling card. Wayfarer Marine has a stellar reputation among the yachting class, the town’s mooring and float systems are well managed, and of course, boaters choose to drop anchor there because of the quality restaurants and shops.

Camden’s other niche is that it is favored by wealthy out-of-state residents for vacation homes. That’s why events such as the annual Camden Conference on Foreign Affairs, which brings internationally and nationally known diplomats to town for a weekend in February, are so important.

So the town’s postcardlike beauty is not vanity. It is an economic amenity. The wealthy retirees don’t want to spend their summers in Anytown, USA, where they see the same chain businesses that dot their winter hometowns. Tourists crave an authentic Maine experience, and that is ensured by retaining a town’s unique character.

In 2006, Nantucket, the Massachusetts island town, passed an ordinance that forbade businesses with 14 or more outlets worldwide and with features like standardized menus or identifying symbols from operating in the downtown. The change was adopted with little opposition.

The Dunkin’ Donuts application in Camden is grandfathered, and efforts to stop it on zoning grounds may be doomed. But if there is community consensus to block chain restaurants, such a move would not be unprecedented. And rather than see it as elitism or evidence of an anti-business bias, such a move could be seen as a way to support the town’s economy.

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