May 24, 2018
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Free for the Taking

It’s not listed under the “Free for the Taking” category in Uncle Henry’s, but it is very nearly as good a deal. The town of Camden is offering a 3.5-acre riverfront parcel of land to any developer willing to pony up $200,000 and hire 24 employees. The purchase price will be rebated in thirds as the developer meets benchmarks of hiring eight more people, ending after five years. Another caveat is that the jobs must pay higher than the Knox County average wage — $45,165, including benefits.

This sort of enticement is not new, the town’s development director reports, but it’s new to this corner of Maine. It’s the sort of smart, creative thinking that should be more common in this tough economy.

The offer also carries the Maine imprint. There’s an element of bartering, a good faith offer tempered by some frugality whose final judgment depends on the taker producing — not merely promising — jobs.

The site is a former industrial property where a tannery operated for more than 100 years. The town paid to demolish the building and do some soil clean-up, but some risk remains. Earlier investigations have revealed that some sort of development, even retail shops and residential buildings, probably could be established on the site. The property lies along the Megunticook River.

Last year, voters agreed to add an easement to the property’s deed to create a public pedestrian path through the site, following the river. It’s just a short walk to Camden’s pretty downtown and harbor.

The town’s taxpayers have a sizable investment in the former tannery land — $836,000 — so the political inclination could have been to put a top-dollar price tag on the property and wait it out. But instead, town officials chose a clever, innovative yet pragmatic approach.

The common perception of Camden around Maine is that it is a tony, well-heeled town whose residents are all wealthy and happy to have the local economy dominated by restaurants and shops. This generalization is not so. There is a trailer park in Camden within walking distance from downtown, and many residents are blue-collar workers. Tourism does drive the economy, but town leaders in recent years have taken a hard look at recent trends that show the commercial sector declining and the second-home market flourishing.

Wanting to keep a balance in its complexion, town leaders tried to spur commercial redevelopment of the former Knox Mill complex, where credit-card lender MBNA first landed in Maine. That failed. But if the “free for the taking” marketing strategy works on the former tannery property, Camden will have found an innovative way to create jobs.

This is an effort worth following.

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