With winter still holding its grip on Maine, February might not seem like an obvious time to trek up Route 1 to the small, midcoast town of Camden.
But in a couple of weeks, that’s just what hundreds of attendees of the 31st annual Camden Conference will do — not only coming from other Maine communities, but from across the country and internationally as well.
The Camden Conference, a citizens forum in global affairs, is one of three multi-day “thought” conferences centering around intellectual topics that are held at the town-owned Camden Opera House at times when tourist traffic is light.
In the wake of one of these conferences, PopTech, opting to move to neighboring Northport for its 2018 conference, the Camden Select Board voted last month to set flat Opera House usage fees for existing conferences and approve a deepened nonprofit conference fee discount for eligible organizations.
The move is one that town leaders hope will further solidify the notion that Camden values the cultural and economic benefits existing multi-day conferences bring to the town, and perhaps entice more organizations to hold their conferences in Camden.
“By treating the groups that we have here very favorably, and [acknowledging] that the town sees their value and that we want to partner with them, that’s going to make [Camden] a more appealing place to hold conferences into the future,” Town Manager Audra Caler-Bell said.
The Select Board approved setting 2018-2019 rates of $3,000 for the Camden Conference and $5,000 for the Camden International Film Festival, a four day documentary film festival held in September. The rates are primarily based on the length of Opera House usage, according to Caler-Bell.
Previously, fees for these conferences were set on a base rental rate, which included use of the auditorium and staff, plus charges for additional services such as use of additional rooms or tech packages for concerts or films.
The town also voted to further discount rental rates for nonprofit organizations looking to hold multi-day conferences at the Opera House. A 25 percent discount will be applied to the base nonprofit rental fee for organizations that qualify for sponsorship from the town, according to the sponsorship criteria sheet.
In order to be eligible for sponsorship, the event must be hosted over two or more consecutive days, attract 300 or more attendees each day, be organized by a recognized nonprofit, make at least 15 percent of tickets accessible to midcoast residents at a reasonable cost and maintain a year-round presence in the midcoast.
“The goals is not to generate revenue from these events for the Opera House, it’s more to support the broader value they bring to the community,” Caler-Bell said. “It’s something that has really distinguished Camden as a small coastal community.”
PopTech’s annual conference has been held in Camden since its founding as the Camden Technology Conference in 1996. While the PopTech organization is still based in Camden, the conference will be held at Point Lookout in Northport this fall to allow for more interactive and hands-on participation opportunities, according to PopTech president Leetha Filderman.
With PopTech touching on technology, the Camden film festival presenting documentary films, and the Camden Conference focusing on localized discussion of global issues, the conferences have collectively brought thousands of people to Camden since their respective foundings.
Aside from the cultural opportunities the events bring to midcoast residents, the multi-day conferences bring local hotels and restaurants “significant” economic activity during a slower part of the year, according to Tom Peaco, executive director of the Penobscot Bay Regional Chamber of Commerce.
“The ripple effect is pretty significant. … It just adds to the possibility for businesses to stay open a little longer or throughout the year,” Peaco said. “[Conferences] really further solidify our areas as a year-round destination for a lot of reasons.”
The Camden Conference alone infused about $1 million into the local economy in 2015, according to a University of Maine study commissioned by the conference.
With the Camden Conference bringing international speakers to the seaside town of just under 5,000 residents, conference president Bruce Cole said the Camden Conference is “spreading the name of Camden all over the globe.”
Cole said there hasn’t been talk of moving the Camden Conference out of Camden, though in recent years the organization has expanded to offer a livestream of the conference at the Hutchinson Center in Belfast, the Strand Theater in Rockland and at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. There is also a future possibility for the conference to offer a livestream in Boston, Cole said.
Camden Conference speakers have mentioned to Cole that it’s unusual for a conference of this size and scope to be held in Camden and not a large city, but Cole said Camden offers a rare environment for conference goers.
Peaco and Filderman also cited the midcoast location as a boon to attracting conference goers.
“The area’s natural beauty, sense of history and the feeling of ‘being away’ create a unique reflective atmosphere for PopTech and other festivals and conferences that are held in the area,” Filderman said.
Caler-Bell noted that while Camden might not have the incentives a larger city can offer conferences, the town’s latest move acknowledges that being a host to these types of thought conferences “is who we are and this is who we want to be into the future.”
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Correction: A previous version of this report misspelled Camden Conference president Bruce Cole's name.