CAMDEN — Last autumn, Camden Town Manager Audra Caler-Bell submitted a grant application to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for funds to continue cleaning up the former Apollo Tannery property on Washington Street. On April 25, the EPA told the town that the application was approved, and Camden is to receive $200,000 for the project.
“The Town of Camden submitted an outstanding grant proposal, and we deeply appreciate the tremendous commitment of time and energy that went into its preparation,” wrote David R. Lloyd, Director of the EPA’s Office of Brownfields and Land Revitalization, in Washington, D.C.
“Over 100 years of heavy industrial operations has left a negative and blighted legacy on our target area and more importantly the working class residential neighborhood that surrounds the site,” wrote Caler-Bell, in her Nov. 16, 2017 application. “Despite our best efforts to cleanup and market the property, the Site remains contaminated and undeveloped, with potential interested parties rescinding interest due to the environmental conditions that remain on the Site.”
The Apollo Tannery site has been under town purview since 2003, when Camden acquired it through a lien foreclosure. The tannery had closed in 1999, following a fire and financial issues.
“In 2004, Camden issued a municipal bond to pay for the demolition and removal of the unsafe tannery structures; the Town is currently still repaying this debt,” wrote Caler-Bell. “In 2007, Camden received an REPA Cleanup Grant to clean up the most-contaminated portion of the Site which were impacted with Stoddard solution and tanning process liquids.”
History of the tannery site, since 2003
“We have been talking about the tannery for years,” said Peter Gross, chairman of the Community Economic Development Advisory Committee, which was created in 2009 and charged with helping the town sell the 3.5-acre brownfield since cleaned according to state and federal environmental agency guidelines.
He said that at a 2012 Select Board meeting when the town decided to engage someone to actively sell the property.
“It was the initial issue CEDAC took up when it [the municipal committee] was created,” he said, speaking to the Camden Select Board Monday evening, Nov. 27, 2012. “The downturn in the economy did not help marketing efforts.”
The Apollo Tannery, at 116 Washington Street, had closed its tanning business in 1999, following a fire and financial problems.
In 2003, Camden acquired it in a lien foreclosure. At the 2011 Camden Town Meeting, it was characterized by one resident as “Camden Follies, Act II.”
But Camden voters agreed to invest close to $1 million to clean up it. The town demolished the decrepit buildings, removed some contaminated soil and capoed more, hoping the vacant lot would eventually provide the community with a source of enterprise and employment.
For a brief period in 2006, a Florida-based investor offered to purchase the lot for $100,000 (a deal that was terminated).
In 2008, another town committee that preceded CEDAC, the Tannery Work Group, recommended the town sell the property in accordance with guiding principles and buyer/developer qualifications. Incentives proposed by the group included supplying a "land for jobs" rebate as a means of encouraging the creation of year-round jobs.
The town wanted any potential buyer to create at least 24 new jobs, each each paying at least $40,000 in wages and benefits annually. Furthermore, preference was to given to businesses that would stimulate other new employers to come to Camden without taking customers from any already existing business in the town. A list of acceptable businesses was created, along with a list of those that should not be encouraged in the redeveloped site.
Acceptable businesses included bio-technology and life sciences; research and development; marine trades and boat building; higher education institutions; precision manufacturing and health care. Unacceptable businesses included outdoor boat storage; poultry, meat or seafood processing; auto repair shops and warehouse.
In 2009, CEDAC retained Chris Shrum and the then-Knox-Waldo Regional Economic Development Council, with the help of approximately $24,000 in marketing funds, to attract a buyer. At the same time, CEDAC began to focus on its broader mission to help Camden stimulate its economic engine and create year-round employment.
While those efforts were under way, a group of Camden residents also began working on the Camden Riverwalk, a pathway alongside Megunticook River. In 2008, Camden voters had approved creating a 25-foot-wide easement on the tannery land, keeping it forever under the feet of the public, for a walkway.
As the town and CEDAC pushed marketing the tannery site and its land for jobs concept, it placed an ad on Yahoo's financial website in 2010. B.D' Turman'd Entertainment LLC, whose principals were in Los Angeles and Milwaukee, responded, and pursued acquiring the land, proposing to construct there two sound stages to be used in film production. The deal, as crafted by the town and the LLC principals, became controversial, and LLC pulled out. Reasons for terminating a purchase and sales agreement were attributed to the overly constrictive land configuration, size, and restrictions affecting title that would make it impossible for the business to develop the studios, adequate parking, office facilities and river improvements.
Renewed interest in the parcel arose in 2014 when North East Mobile Health Services indicated interest in part of the parcel. But Aug. 26, 2014, the ambulance service announced that it was backing out of talks with Camden.
In 2014, in a close nonbinding November vote, Camden residents indicated they wanted the Tannery land to be used for commercial/business purposes. The question on the ballot was: “Do you support using the Tannery property for commercial/business uses described in the Guiding Principles approved by the Town Meeting, or do you support using the Tannery property for park/open space?”
1,429 said they wanted it kept for commercial/business use
1,360 said they wanted it used as park/open space
Those guiding principles were approved in June 2008 at Town Meeting.
Following the 2014 nonbinding referendum, the Select Board created the Tannery Work Group "to lead an inclusive, community-wide dialog to determine the preferred uses of the site."
The group was finalize objectives, rank preferences for concepts on the table, and plan for how to include the town in the discussion.
For 18 months, the Group worked, under the leadership of former town manager Roger Moody, and on March 21, 2017, the group presented its final recommendations and recommended the town pursue a federal brownfield grant to help refine the site.
But less than half the of the 3.5 acres was remediated, and now Camden wants to continue using it as a green space, and for commercial enterprise. The Camden Farmers’ Market operates there in the summer season, and citizens walk beside the Megunticook River on the pedestrian pathway Riverwalk.
The grant application outlined the problems of the site, given its historical use:
“During the operation of the tannery, process water, wastewater and liquid wastes were discharged directly to the Megunticook River through a sluiceway that ran underneath a site building, and solid wastes (such as leather trimmings, splittings, hides, drums, etc.) were dumped on its shores. This otherwise picturesque river has degraded the water quality and ecological character of the river and may have had a disproportionate negative impact to surface water and groundwater quality in the Target Area. This environmental concern is of significance to the Town because the Megunticook River discharges directly to Camden Harbor, one of the most scenic harbors in Maine and an active commercial fishery.”
The clean-up plan proposes to further mitigate surficial soils that remains and are contaminated with benzoapyrene and arsenic at concentrations which currently pose an exposure risk to human health and the environment, the application said. The plan includes removing concrete slabs and the construction of engineered cover systems to prevent human contact with the affected soils.
A Brownfield Cleanup Task Force is to be created that will include town staff, selected qualified environmental professionals, EPA staff, and local citizens
“Camden will notify the adjacent land owners and community organizations of cleanup schedules; hold a public meeting to educate and update the community regarding cleanup and proposed redevelopment; and prepare public outreach materials,” said Caler-Bell. “We will provide extensive outreach and communication with residents and businesses prior to undertaking the cleanup efforts, during remediation, and following the successful completion of remediation.”
Camden joined multiple other communities in Maine receiving a portion of the $1.2 million EPA dispersement, including:
Greater Portland Council of Governments—community-wide: $300,000 Assessment Grant
Through the Small Business Liability Relief and Brownfields Revitalization Act of 2002, as amended by the Brownfields Utilization, Investment, and Local Development Act of 2018, EPA is working to help states and communities around the country clean up and revitalize brownfield sites.
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