CAMDEN, Maine — A fleet of white sails will once again converge in Camden Harbor for Labor Day weekend’s annual windjammer celebration, but the event is under new management and will have a new name.
In a controversial move last month, the Select Board maneuvered to remove longtime organizer Annie Higbee and put the local Chamber of Commerce in charge of what will be known as the Camden Windjammer Festival.
“The Chamber is not empire building. We’re not interested in keeping this event,” said Dan Bookham, director of the Camden-Rockport-Lincolnville Chamber of Commerce, which now is the umbrella organization for the festival. “The most important thing for us is that it continues, and continues to serve the community.”
Higbee had organized the festival for 14 years, but recently questions have arisen about the accounting for the event. After Higbee failed to satisfy the Select Board about how she was handling various revenues and was slow to show proof of registering as a nonprofit, the board last month denied her application to use the public landing for the event and turned over the organizing responsibilities to the Chamber.
“Now the accounting, all those types of things, will be much more open,” said Select Board member John French. “That’s been the issue right along — to make sure that everything is clear and transparent.”
But Higbee denies that she was ever intentionally opaque, and said that she in fact has lost her own money on the event some years.
“I felt like I was railroaded out,” Higbee said Friday. “The town of Camden asked us to be a nonprofit, which we weren’t before.”
She said she didn’t file for nonprofit status “not because we were making money but because I didn’t understand how to structure a nonprofit.”
Windjammer Weekend began in the summer of 1994 after Higbee envisioned having an end-of-year party for the fleet. The Chamber decided to get involved, then the event grew quickly, according to Capt. Ray Williamson of Maine Windjammer Cruises, who also was involved with the initial planning.
“There was a lot of enthusiasm,” Williamson said. “Annie was the organizer. The Chamber of Commerce — their role was to handle the money, pay the bills … We didn’t know if we were going to make money or lose money.”
The celebration grew, eventually attracting what Higbee described as “tens of thousands” of spectators who came to see events such as the blessing of the fleet and last year’s 20-boat-long parade of sails.
Some of the weekend’s other activities included lobster crate races, live music, knot-tying demonstrations, artists’ exhibits, a chowder cook-off and a fireworks display over the harbor.
“It is a great celebration,” French said. “It’s a great economic stimulus for the area for the end of the season.”
Over the years, Williamson said, the Chamber of Commerce stopped its involvement — but Higbee kept right on organizing. Last June, he said, when Higbee asked to have the use of the public landing for the festival the Select Board asked whether she was a nonprofit.
“The Select Board was surprised to hear that she wasn’t a nonprofit,” Williamson said.
Town officials wanted her to organize as a nonprofit and show proof of transparent accounting. By October Higbee said she had registered with the state as a corporation — Windjammer Weekend Inc. — and since had been working toward nonprofit tax status.
But by April, Camden Select Board members wanted more action, and unanimously voted April 7 to deny Higbee’s application for use of the public landing. At a meeting two weeks later, they also unanimously voted to deny reconsidering that earlier decision.
The Chamber of Commerce has held two public meetings so far this month to organize the event and Bookham said that response has been “fantastic.”
“These are people who are actively coming to serve and volunteer and make the event happen,” he said. “The energy, the positive energy, has been amazing.”
But Higbee, who wanted to have a chance to thank the volunteers who helped her put the festival together over the years, said that she is moving forward with creating another Windjammer Weekend next year.
“I hope they have a great and successful event,” she said of this year’s organizers of the Camden Windjammer Festival. “What I think I have a talent for is bringing people together. When I regain my strength and my inspiration, I’ll do just that.”