CAMDEN, Maine — Town officials are reporting that for the first time in recent years, open parking spaces were evident on Main Street during the summer months in this tourist town. And it wasn’t a lack of visitors, since many merchants reported brisk business, an observation backed up by early state tourism data.
The explanation? According to Martin Cates, chairman of the town select board, it was in part the deal the town made with the owner of the former Knox Mill for added parking.
The mill, converted in the early 1990s into the offices of credit card lender MBNA, has since been transformed into street-level shops and restaurants and high-end condominiums.
In discussions over the last year as the town prepared a new downtown master plan, the lack of parking was a common refrain.
“A side effect of being so popular is heavy traffic, especially during peak periods,” Cates wrote in a recent statement, which he explained Saturday was meant as a pat on the back to the groups that worked on the plan.
“We don’t want people sitting in traffic; we want them to get out of their cars and experience Camden,” Cates wrote. “If they don’t see a parking space or know where to go for off-street parking, some people just keep driving through.”
Peter Gross, chairman of the town’s Community & Economic Development Committee, echoed that view, which Cates quoted in his statement: “Small towns are much more appealing and seem friendlier to residents and visitors alike when the main streets are not lined wall-to-wall with parked cars.”
Those working on the plan concluded it wasn’t a lack of parking that caused the backed-up traffic. “We lacked letting people know where our parking is located,” Cates wrote.
The town installed “P” signs to direct drivers to over 70 spaces at the Camden Public Safety Building on Washington Street, 22 spaces in a lot on Mechanic Street, 19 spaces on Washington Street, 24 at the Camden Public Library and 90 at the public landing.
As the parking discussion continued, Matt Orne, one of the owners of the Knox Mill, told town officials he had more parking spaces than he needed. In April, Orne entered into a three-year agreement with the town to lease it 106 spaces behind the mill for a $1 per year.
“These spaces dramatically increased the availability of off-street parking for downtown employees, visitors and the public,” Cates wrote. “Best of all, these spaces are both free and worry-free,” because there is no time limit on their use.
The walk from the parking lot behind the old mill to the heart of downtown takes about five minutes, “If you saunter,” Cates said.
In his written statement, Cates cited the observations of Meg Quijano, who has owned and operated The Smiling Cow, a shop on Main Street, for over 30 years: “I have never seen a summer where there actually parking spaces on Main Street. This was definitely not because there were fewer people visiting Camden. We had the best season we’ve had in years.”
Camden has seen consistent tourist traffic in recent decades, with its picturesque village on Penobscot Bay, shops, restaurants and inns, schooner fleet, views of Megunticook Mountain and Mount Battie and Camden Hills State Park. But rather than take that for granted, Cates said, several civic groups joined their efforts to improve the tourist draw. Those groups included the Penobscot Bay Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Community & Economic Development Advisory Committee, the Downtown Business Group and others.
“The enthusiasm with the different downtown groups is probably unparalleled in recent years,” Cates said.
In his statement, he encouraged residents and business owners “to get involved and stay engaged in shaping Camden’s future.”