Camden’s downtown plan includes community wish list

Posted May 21, 2012, at 7:28 p.m.

CAMDEN, Maine — There’s a lot of talk among business owners in town these days over a new plan.

Camden’s Select Board unanimously approved a 298-page downtown master plan last Tuesday. In doing so, the town agreed that it needs to be the catalyst for change.

“There’s a lot of energy in Camden now — it felt quiet for the past few years,” said Elizabeth Valente, co-owner of Small Wonder Gallery. “We have a lot of good momentum going and it’s good to have a plan in place. We have so much to offer so it’s nice to put that spotlight on places that need improvement.”

The 298-page plan includes ideas, price tags and deadlines. For instance, Camden needs at least one bicycle rack on the southern end of town and it likely will cost $400. At the intersection of Elm, Main and Bayview streets, the town should have four kiosks to educate tourists about local destinations, and those will cost a total of $5,000, the plan states.

That sort of solid data will help on two levels, said Brian Hodges, town development director. For one thing, Camden previously was limited in what grant funding it could receive for projects because it lacked a master plan.

“One of the questions asked [on grant applications] is, ‘Do you have a downtown master plan?’ If the answer is ‘no,’ then you stop right there — you’re not eligible for that grant. We wanted to eliminate the chance of not being able to apply,” Hodges said.

And with the detailed data, Hodges can better fill out applications for those grants for which the town is newly eligible.

The master plan reads like the town’s wish list. The plan calls for sidewalks, crosswalks and a new trail along the river down to the harbor. It seeks more trees, park benches, parking and signs to show where the new parking is.

The logic of the master plan is that the prettier, more functional and robust the town is, the more high-paying jobs it will attract.

“Success on the physical stage (pedestrian-friendly downtown and harbor) attracts year-round citizens and visitors, which in turn fosters the retention and creation of interesting, year-round, higher-income jobs, which in turn generates public and private revenue, which in turn provides resources to make further physical improvements — in a self-perpetuating upward spiral,” the plan states.

The town already has seen one success. Through the process of creating the plan, a local business owner decided to lease more than 100 parking spaces near the Knox Mill to the town for $1 a year for three years to help alleviate parking problems in town.

To sort through the rest of the master plan’s list of projects, the town formed a committee of businesspeople to generate comments from the community and decide which things need to happen first.

Meg Quijano, owner of The Smiling Cow gift shop, is on that committee.

“I’m really excited about this. Anyone involved in it is very excited. The town is so enthusiastic and supportive of us, the business community and downtown,” she said. “It’s a different era. Camden didn’t used to have to think about anything but being here and being beautiful — now there is a lot more competition in the tourist business because people are more savvy and look into these things. So we need to promote all the things this area has to offer.”

Once the committee decides which projects need to happen first, the town will apply for grants to finance them. Hodges said the town also might use tax-increment financing district money to pay for improvements. The TIFs have made Camden about $60,000 in the last year, Hodges said.

The town paid $20,000 for Lachman Architects and Planners to write the master plan. That money came from income the town generated through renting property for a cellphone tower, Hodges said.

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