The town of Camden has for more than a decade been debating how best to use the property it owns at the old Apollo Tannery site on Washington Street, running alongside the Megunticook River and river walk. A farmers’ market has successfully taken root at the site, now popularly known as Tannery Park.
Much more is possible, however, and the Select Board recently solicited ideas from the public on how the property should be used. With a climate crisis threatening the planet, energy innovation should be a key consideration. An equally -- or perhaps even more -- important factor should be community-building, at a time when cooperation and activism at a local level are desperately needed to help heal our planet, our economy and our fractured politics.
In the case of Tannery Park, this argues strongly for the Friends of Tannery Park proposal for a multi-purpose park on the property, a proposal that was developed over years by town citizens with input from public meetings, that would leave the property owned by the town, and that has “full support” from the Camden Farmers’ Market.
Two other proposals received for the Tannery property – from property developer Michael Mullins, now of Rockland, for an “industrial eco-village” and from a Portland-based development group for 35-50 “workforce housing” apartments – have appealing aspects. Who doesn’t think it would be good to offer affordable workspaces to local entrepreneurs? And who doesn’t think Camden needs more affordable housing? A fourth proposal, from Midcoast Habitat for Humanity, would be substantially, and perhaps fully, incorporated into the Friends of Tannery Park option.
The problem isn’t primarily with the alternatives to the locally developed Friends of Tannery Park proposal, although the other two schemes are arguably more grandiose in scale than our town needs or wants at this stage and they would both remove the property from town ownership. In fact, the point isn’t that there’s a problem at all. The point is that there’s an opportunity here for the town to act on ideas developed by and for the community itself, of the type and on the scale local people want.
Nor does the park proposal suffer from the “nimbyism” (not-in-my-backyard) that sometimes taints community opposition to ambitious development schemes. The Friends of Tannery Park want to keep the farmers market. They are proposing to include two affordable housing units built by Habitat for Humanities to “a high level of efficiency”—not as good as zero-net energy from an ecology-perspective, but close. The number of Habitat units should probably be increased to the three proposed by Habitat, if not four or five, even if it comes at the cost of some recreational facilities.
But the community group might well be open to such adjustments, and we the citizens of Camden could decide, because it would be our park, on our land, developed to suit our needs and wants. Developers can have good ideas, but there is plenty of unoccupied property scattered around Camden for private use, including as workshops for entrepreneurs. Perhaps they could use the co-op approach of Antiques at 10 Mechanic as a model. Or move to the Cranesport Garage on Mount Battie St. that Mullins already operates as an automotive “business incubator.”
It’s heart-breaking at the moment to walk along High Street in Camden and see all the empty or soon-to-be-empty storefronts. The town does not need additional commercial space. Nor are new performance or event venues required when we already have the Opera House, public spaces available at several churches, High Mountain Hall, not to mention Union Hall, the Rockport Opera House and other venues only a few miles away. That’s not counting the outdoor performance possibilities that are hopefully opening up at the Snow Bowl – another town-owned gem.
We do need more housing that mid- to low-income families can afford, especially now that urban flight has sparked a Maine real estate boom that is particularly strong in our area. Even if the number of Habitat houses included in the Friends of Tannery Park proposal were increased to four or five, it wouldn’t solve the problem.
We need multiple projects, including some on the scale of the nearly 20 apartments, duplexes and single-families houses Habitat is proposing to build in Rockland. But that would be on 11 acres. It’s not clear that what Camden needs or wants is up to 50 apartments and 100 paved parking spots squeezed into the 3.5 acre Tannery lot along with farmers market and maybe a playground. There’s been talk that a proposal involving affordable housing may come in for the town’s much larger Sagamore Farm property.
Whatever happens, the important thing is that it should have not merely strong community support, but active community and town-government involvement. That’s the best way to guarantee that our town remains the kind of town we want.