CAMDEN — While it wasn’t official, all five heads of the Camden Select Board were nodding in agreement Tuesday night to place a nonbinding referendum on the Nov. 4 ballot, and see — in the words of Chairman Martin Cates — “if the community can give us a pulse” on what to do with the former Apollo Tannery acreage on Washington Street.
Should it be a green space? Should be be dedicated to solely commercial use? Should there be a mix of uses there?
The language of the referendum is to be crafted this week and presented to the board when it convenes again in two weeks for a regularly scheduled meeting. At that point, the board will decide if the referendum is to appear before the town at the polls on election day 2014, a day that is likely to see a sizable electorate turn out to vote. This is the year when Maine will choose between three strong gubernatorial candidates, as well as U.S. and state senate, Congressional and Maine House of Representative politicians.
The discussion of the 3.5-acre parcel followed the Aug. 26 meeting the board in the Washington Street meeting room. While the discussion was not an agenda item, Chairman Cates called for a workshop following the meeting’s closure to talk specifically about the recent course of events, or the change-of-course that took place earlier in the day Monday when the town learned that North East Mobile Health Services was pulling out of real estate negotiations on the property.
Monday afternoon, Aug. 26, the for-profit ambulance service announced that it was backing out of talks with Camden to purchase and redevelop the former Apollo Tannery property, which has stood vacant since 2005.
History of the tannery site
“We have been talking about the tannery for years,” said Peter Gross, chairman of theCommunity Economic Development Advisory Committee (CEDAC), 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 economy seems to picking up. Hopefully we won't go off the fiscal cliff.”
The lot at 116 Washington St. has been staring in the town's fiscal face since 2003 when Camden acquired it in a lien foreclosure, and at the 2011 Camden Town Meeting, it was characterized by one resident as “Camden Follies, Act II.”
The Apollo Tannery had closed in 1999, following a fire and financial problems.
But Camden voters agreed to clean it up and attempt to sell it. The town invested close to $1 million, first demolishing the decrepit buildings, carting off some contaminated soil and capping more, hoping the vacant lot would eventually provide the community with a source of enterprise and employment. The town is still paying off that environmental investment, with annual bond payments of approximately $60,000.
Aside from a brief period in 2006, when a Florida-based investor offered to purchase it for $100,000 (a deal that was terminated), and another deal that soured in 2011 with a film production company, the site of the former Apollo Tannery has held both promise and cost for the town for nine years.
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 goals then were far loftier than just divesting the land: 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 should, according to the town, be 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.
And while those efforts were under way, a group of Camden residents also began working on the idea of a Camden Riverwalk, a pathway that would run along the Megunticook River, and use a portion of the town-owned tannery property that borders the 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.
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.
The ambulance company, which services Camden, Lincolnville, Rockport and a portion of Hope said it was exploring an alternate site.
The news was a blow to town staff and the Select Board; the latter had been poised to discuss and possibly enter into a purchase and sales agreement at its Monday night meeting.
The potential sale had sparked a debate in the Millville neighborhood where the tannery land sits.
After the Aug. 26 meeting concluded, the live streaming, televising and videotaping of the Select Board also ended. Workshops are not normally recorded as no votes are allowed to be taken during what are to be discussion-only conversations about municipal matters.
Because the Tuesday afternoon news was so startling, the board decided to talk about it that very night, for approximately 45 minutes.
Board member Leonard Lookner suggested the town form an ad hoc committee whose members would be given a 90-day sunset period to produce redevelopment ideas for the land, which borders the Megunticook River on one side. He encouraged the creation of a committee that would consist of neighbors and other citizens interested in the future of the tannery property. Their mission: to explore ways that that tannery could be used constructively.
Board member John French said he had spoken with a number of residents that day who had stopped by his garage, and who were angry about the negative response to the ambulance proposal by some Millville neighbors.
French cited the Aug. 21 meeting of neighbors and North East representatives to talk about the proposal.
“They weren’t willing to listen to North East,” said French. “It was a bashing session.”
Select Board member Don White said it was important that the town examine the larger picture: “What does the community want?”
He said of the recent discussions: “There are no winners. We’re all losers.”
A nonbinding referendum, such as used several years ago to gauge voter interest in upgrading the town-owned Snow Bowl, would “represent the entire town.”
The board acknowledged such a vote might result in a 49-50 percent split, but said it also might engender a vision that the town can collectively follow.
Chairman Cates said he was on the 2007 ad hoc committee that shaped the vision then for what the town wanted the former tannery site to be.
The town had acquired it following nonpayment of taxes in 2005 and spent close to a $1 million, with environmental cleanup funds, to scour contaminated soil away. A Riverwalk was constructed more recently along the water’s edge, and Camden has actively sought a sale to a commercial entity in order to create jobs — stipulations that grew out of the 2007 committee’s intentions, said Cates.
Those conditions were crafted eight years ago, he said.
“Maybe the community has changed its mind,” he said.
The vote would “ask the community, have you changed your mind?” Cates said. “If they tell us they changed their minds, then we have a mission.”
Lookner again suggested a committee be formed after the vote to further take the results of the nonbinding referendum into account and flesh out new ideas for the acreage, if indicated.
Editorial Director Lynda Clancy can be reached at email@example.com; 207-706-6657