Camden continues to wrestle with its economic future

This town-owned lot on Washington Street in Camden was the former location of a leather tannery and before that woolen mills. The town has been trying to give the property away in an effort to create jobs but has yet to have success. Residents are expected to vote in November on what should be done with the lot.
Stephen Betts
This town-owned lot on Washington Street in Camden was the former location of a leather tannery and before that woolen mills. The town has been trying to give the property away in an effort to create jobs but has yet to have success. Residents are expected to vote in November on what should be done with the lot. Buy Photo
Posted Aug. 31, 2014, at 11:29 a.m.
Last modified Sept. 01, 2014, at 7:01 p.m.
A leather tannery that operated at the now town-owned lot on Washington Street in Camden, seen here circa 1960.
Courtesy of Town of Camden
A leather tannery that operated at the now town-owned lot on Washington Street in Camden, seen here circa 1960.

CAMDEN, Maine — The decision by the regional ambulance service to back out of a plan to buy a town-owned lot for its headquarters in the face of neighborhood opposition again raises the issue of what the economic future for the town holds.

This was the latest in a series of commercial projects that have met with opposition from grassroots neighborhood groups.

But longtime Camden Select Board member John French Jr. maintains Camden is not a difficult place to do business.

French is in his sixth consecutive term on the board, dating back to 1997. He said he understands the concerns raised by neighbors to Northeast Mobile Health Services plan to purchase the former tannery property on Washington Street.

French said neighbors to the former tannery lot have become used to the lot being empty.

The Select Board will meet Tuesday and is expected to schedule a non-binding referendum on what should be done with the town-owned parcel.

“This is exactly why we want to hold a straw vote in November to see what direction the people want us to go with this property,” French said. He said that a large turnout is expected in November because of the gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races, and this will provide the board with a strong cross section of public opinion.

The tannery sat on about 3 acres, sandwiched between Washington Street and the Megunticook River. The company, its predecessor Camden Tannery and woolen mills before that, operated there throughout the 1900s and employed up to 300 people.

The plant closed in 1999, and in 2003, the town acquired the property for nonpayment of taxes. The town and state combined to remove the buildings and contaminated soil.

In 2007, the Apollo Tannery Redevelopment Work Group was formed to consider options to develop the site and create jobs. In 2008, the group recommended that the town sell the site at a reasonable, market-based price, include incentives if necessary to attract a new owner or business that would create good-paying, year-round jobs in an industry or business sector deemed acceptable to the neighborhood and the town.

Residents approved the recommendations at the June town meeting.

In the ensuing five years, the town has offered to give the property to a business that would develop the lot with jobs. The town even offered to give the property away if a suitable business would guarantee the creation of good-paying jobs.

Northeast Mobile Health Services was looking to build its regional headquarters on the Washington Street lot and employ 33 workers. Those jobs would have paid $11 to $18 an hour plus benefits.

The company had not developed a specific building plan so there was no estimate on size of the project and what would be paid in property taxes.

The only formal offer before Northeast Mobile Health was in 2011 when B.D’Turman’D Entertainment said it wanted to build film studios on the site. That project met with considerable opposition from residents, who claimed that the company’s plans were not feasible.

The film company withdrew its plans before a scheduled town vote was held, saying the lot did not meet its needs and also cited the public opposition.

Camden Development Director Brian Hodges said last month the town continued to receive interest about the former Camden Tannery property, mainly through email inquiries but that the businesses no not follow up with greater interest.

During the two-week uproar over the Northeast proposal, several neighbors have recommended that the property be turned into a park. The property is adjacent to the Camden Riverwalk, which supporters want to eventually run all the way to downtown.

French said if residents want the lot to be developed as a park, the board will work on including money for such a project in future municipal budgets.

Select Board Chairman Martin Cates said he grew up around the corner from the former tannery and he worked on the committee that came up with recommendations for what can be done with the property.

“I still believe the site can be productive. I’d like to see jobs there,” Cates said.

The opposition to Northeast Mobile Health is the most recent grassroots effort by citizens to block commercial projects that have been proposed for Camden. The neighbors of the ambulance center say it would be too noisy and create traffic hazards and thus not be an acceptable businesses as required under the 2008 redevelopment plan.

Fox Hill Real Estate, which is planning a high-end alcohol rehabilitation center on Bay View Street, met with considerable opposition from neighbors who said the change would threaten their residential neighborhood and undermine residential zoning protection throughout town. The Select Board refused to place a zone change before voters that would have allowed the project to move ahead.

The original Fox Hill plan would have created 29 jobs with an annual payroll in excess of $3.5 million, according to the company.

Fox Hill then reduced the size of the project and said it would go forward and no longer needed town approval because it was a federally protected activity. Neighbors have filed a federal lawsuit to block the project. That case remains pending in U.S. District Court in Portland.

In 2009, a developer planned to open a Dunkin Donuts in the downtown area. That was met by opposition and a six-month moratorium on formula businesses. The developer dropped his plans for the eatery in Camden.

Robin McIntosh, who is a member of the Community and Economic Development Advisory Committee and was elected its chair last week, said she is optimistic about Camden’s economic future.

She said that there has been a tendency to paint the three projects that have been met with opposition during the past few years with the same brush. She said that on closer inspection, there were different complicating circumstances in each case. For instance, she said, there were different interpretations over the guidelines for what are acceptable uses of the former tannery project.

“There was potential, had the conversation continued, to address those interpretations and to see if there were possibilities for compromise or altering plans,” McIntosh said.

She said the advisory committee had been working on possible uses for the property, and its members are willing to continue after the Select Board decides how to proceed.

She said the town is updating its comprehensive plan, and this is an excellent time for residents to voice their thoughts on the future of the town.

Fox Hill commissioned a study last year by the consulting firm Planning Decisions Inc. of Portland that 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.

The most recent Census figures for Camden show of about 2,300 working-aged people, 365 work from their homes.

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