CAMDEN, Maine — Camden, where the mountains meet the sea, has seen its economy shift to a more seasonal one with unemployment rising sharply and retail sales dropping dramatically during the offseason.
That trend is one of the issues being debated as the town considers whether to amend its zoning law to allow an alcohol rehabilitation center to open in a coastal residential zone.
Opponents argue that a proposal to add private rehabilitation facilities as a special exception to the zone would be a clear case of spot zoning that would erode the protection for residential neighborhoods.
Proponents dispute that claim and point out, as one of their arguments in support of the zone change, that the town needs year-round full-time jobs.
Fox Hill Real Estate, which is proposing the high-end rehab center, commissioned a study by consulting firm Planning Decisions Inc. of Portland. That study cited the increasingly seasonal nature of Camden’s economy.
“The town of Camden faces four fundamental challenges: a declining and aging population; declining employment; high and growing seasonality; and a taxable property base that is growing more slowly than the state average,” the Planning Decisions report begins.
Camden’s population fell from 5,260 in 2000 to 4,846 in 2010, according to the U.S. Census. The Maine State Planning Office projects that by 2030, the town’s population will drop another 12 percent to 4,254.
“More importantly, Camden faces an enormous change in the structure of its population,” the Planning Decisions report stated. That change is a steep drop in people age 18 to 64 and a steep rise in the number of people 65 and older.
Brian Hodges, Camden development director, said last week he has not read the Planning Decisions report but acknowledged the demographic situation facing Camden.
“We see population challenges both with numbers and the demographic age range,” Hodges said.
The town has been aware of these issues and has been looking at ways to attract a wider range of people to come to Camden, including focusing on recreational projects such as construction of the Camden Riverwalk. That project calls eventually for a 2.5-mile trail along the Megunticook River that runs from Megunticook Lake to Camden Harbor.
Thus far, the town has completed a 900-foot section of the trail adjacent to the former Camden Tannery property. The next section of the trail to be worked on is about 925 feet near the Seabright Dam.
The tannery project, by coincidence, is an example of the difficulty the town has had in finding year-round jobs.
For more than three years the town has offered 2.8 acres of commercial property along the river to any business willing to create 24 jobs within five years of acquiring the land.
The Washington Street property was acquired by the town in 2003 after the former Apollo Tannery closed and the company failed to pay its property taxes. The town and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection worked for years to clean up pollution left by the tannery on the property.
In 2005, residents voted for a bond issue for the town to borrow $836,000 for the cleanup work. The town later received a $200,000 grant used to clean up brownfield sites. The work was completed by 2008.
As the recession struck in 2008, town officials decided to try a marketing ploy to attract jobs to the community by offering the land for free. The property also was approved for state Pine Tree Zone eligibility which offers tax breaks and job recruitment incentives for businesses.
In the more than three years since the town has offered the property, there has only been one public proposal. In early 2011, B.D. Turman’D Entertainment sought to purchase the land to build an 18,000-square-foot building for sound stages to film movies. The group said it planned to make $270 million worth of movies in Camden over the ensuing three years.
The Select Board signed a contract in March 2011 with the company, after which there was considerable criticism of the viability of the company by residents. B.D. Turman’D ceased pursuing the deal in April 2011, citing a variety of reasons including the criticism from townspeople.
Hodges said Wednesday the town still receives inquiries about the land but has no takers.
“The economy has a lot to do with it,” Hodges said.
He said even beyond the Camden boundaries there is little new commercial or construction.
Maine Department of Labor monthly unemployment reports for 2013 back up the findings of the Planning Decisions report about the seasonality of Camden’s economy.
The unemployment rate for the Camden area was less than the state rate from May through October but greater than the state rate from January through April. In January for example, the Camden area jobless rate was 9.2 percent, compared with the statewide rate of 7.3 percent. In August, Camden’s rate was 5.2 percent compared with the 7 percent statewide rate.
Retail sales also show a dramatic swing in business activity in the Camden area based on the season. The Maine Bureau of Revenue Services reported that in August total retail sales for the Camden area were $24.8 million. This is nearly four times the $6.3 million in retail sales reported in February for the Camden area.
Statewide, retail sales fluctuate much less. Statewide retail sales in August totaled $1.87 billion, less than twice the $1.1 billion in retail sales during February.
The Planning Decisions report commissioned by Fox Hill projects that the rehab center would produce 29 jobs with an annual payroll in excess of $3.5 million.
“These full-time, good jobs will go a long way in offsetting the jobs, wage, and seasonality problems,” the report states.
Attorney Paul Gibbons, who represents the proposed Fox Hill developers, reiterated those remarks during a Nov. 20 public hearing.
“These are stable, high-quality jobs. An opportunity like this doesn’t come along very often,” Gibbons said.
The Planning Decisions report also projected that the rehab center would generate another $1.5 million in indirect income for businesses in the community.
Opponents, however, argue the project would hurt the economy.
David Hague, a Chestnut Street resident, said at the Nov. 20 hearing that Camden is dependent on its tourists, summer visitors and retirees.
“Changing the character of our community to allow commercial activities in residential areas would permanently alter Camden, making it less attractive to the visitors, summer visitors and retirees who add so much to our economy,” Hague said.
Dennis McGuirk of Norumbega Drive challenged Fox Hill’s economic statistics at that Nov. 20 hearing.
“Every community goes through economic cycles,” McGuirk said. “The MBNA years were the high point for Camden. We’re not going to replace what MBNA brought to us by spot zoning and putting commercial ventures in the middle of our residential neighborhoods.”
MBNA moved out of Camden in 2004, taking its 360 remaining jobs.
Resident Des Fitzgerald, however, said at the hearing that the jobs that would come with the Fox Hill rehab proposal are what Camden needs.
“Very few of us want a seasonal town, that is a tourist town only,” Fitzgerald said. “Do you want this to be a community where residents come for 30 to 45 days and then leave us with the expectation that we will mow their lawns and provide them a good meal? I want more than that for the community I live in.”
The Camden Planning Board is expected to vote Dec. 12 on whether to recommend the zoning change to the Select Board, which then would decide whether to hold a referendum. Zoning changes in Camden can only be approved by a vote of the public.