After 14 years, there is now a tangible plan for the former tannery site on Washington Street in Camden that reflects the town’s desire for both green space and commercial enterprise.
The work comes courtesy of a volunteer group of citizens, the Tannery Work Group, that has been meeting since 2015 shape the future of the 3.5-acre, town-owned lot on Washington Street, in the neighborhood of Camden known as Millville. The empty parcel, with its residual slabs of industrial cement and recently constructed Megunticook Riverwalk trail, is also a designated environmental brownfield, now remediated of pollutants.
Since 2003, Camden has wrestled with its future purpose and value; as of March 21, however, a structured outline to redevelop it for the community have been officially proposed.
And the first step is to tidy up a portion of the tannery lot so that the Camden Farmers’ Market can set up shop there twice a week, beginning May 11.
The Farmers’ Market agreed to lease a portion on which its member vendors will sell their agricultural produce and goods. The Farmers’ Market formerly was doing business at the Knox Mill Parking lot, and prior to that, on a parking lot on Virginia Ave., in Camden. Now, the nonprofit is moving its operations to Millville.
In a note to its members, the market said at the end of February, “We’re pleased to announce our move to a new home with plenty of parking and room for picnics and access to walking along the Camden Riverwalk. The location will get even better as it is fully developed for multiple community uses. 116 Washington Street (Route 105) is near the popular Megunticook Market, two blocks from Route 52 and can be reached on foot from the downtown area by sidewalk. It is easily accessible from both downtown and outlying areas–out of the fray but close to town. Thank you Camden. We’re excited as we move forward with plans for 2017, our 43rd year of bringing locally produced goods to Camden and Midcoast Maine.”
Other Tannery developments
Going forward, the Tannery Work Group is suggesting the town pursue a federal brownfield grant to help refine the site.
The Group also wants to rename the entire lot so that the public no longer refers to it as “the tannery.”
“We have clearly moved beyond the ‘tannery site,’ which needs to be in our history, not our present day nomenclature,” said Tannery Group Chairman Roger Moody.
And, the Group is asking the town to consider even more ideas, such as a covered farmers’ market, a public space for festivals, outdoor ice skating, acoustic music concerts, and perhaps a pickleball (paddle sport) court.
On March 21, Moody represented to the Tannery Work Group before the Camden Select Board with plans and drawings.
The Tannery Group included Ray Andreson, John Arnold, Asger Bagge, Anita Brosius-Scott, Jo Dondis, Stephen Gold, Peter Gross, Delisa Morong, Craig Mudge, Tom Resek, Michael Skaling, Jamie Weymouth, Select Board Liaison Don White and Moody.
The Group has recommended that the lease with the Farmers’ Market get signed, that grants be pursued, that the town seek proposals for development of the building/business envelope; and that the Select Board appoint smaller focus groups or an implementation committee for the phased project, and to help raise money.
The Group is recommending that the lot be leased, not sold, to users.
Camden acquired the tannery property in a 2003 lien foreclosure, and later, citizens voted to tear the factory building down. They also voted to spend federal and local dollars to clean up the polluted soils.
Fast forward to 2015, and the new Tannery Work Group began meeting, reviewing environmental concerns and holding community gatherings to hear ideas and feedback. For 18 months, the 14-member group organized, researched and produced the final multiuse plan that was presented March 21.
“The TWG feels the site is environmentally safe for community re-use, based on reports recently received from the Town's environmental consultants, Ransom Engineering with involvement from the Department of Environmental Protection,” the group said.
According to the tannery group, no contaminants are migrating into Megunticook River.
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.
The group’s objectives were to:
1. preserve green space and enhance the aesthetics of the Riverwalk and overall Tannery Site;
2. enable a wide variety of uses: recreational, commercial, special events;
3. be used and enjoyed by a broad cross-section of the community: young/old, year-round/summer;
4. bring acceptable levels of noise and vehicular traffic;
5. bring positive economic benefit to Camden Community: +new jobs +new economic activity; and
6. protect or enhance Camden Town finances (avoiding expenses and increasing tax or fee receipts).
The Tannery Work Group is also encouraging the town to rename the green space. The group provided some possible names, and suggested if the board didn’t like them, to Or, create a naming committee to get the community involved.
Riverwalk Community Park
Millville River Park
Community River Park
Camden River Park
Megunticook River Park
Camden Riverwalk Park
Washington Street River Park
Sonny Goodwin or Parker Laite Park
After listening to Moody on March 21, Camden Select Board talked further about the old tannery lot.
Board Chairman John French asked Town Attorney Bill Kelly whether a town meeting vote is required for moving ahead with the plan.
Kelly suggested a vote at some point in the future when there is a “more fully-baked plan.”
French said the 2014 nonbinding town meeting vote was 55 to 45 in favor of commercial development on the lot.
“Does the town need to weigh in now to say this acceptable?” he asked.
“That’s a political decision for you folks,” said Kelly. “I don’t think you are constrained politically at this point.”
He added that he would take another look at the history of the town’s involvement with the lot.
The Tannery Work Group said, via Community Director Karen Brace, that it had gone to the community three times, and the people who attended the meetings endorsed the multi-use concept.
The Camden Select Board then voted 4 to 0 to accept the report as presented.
Reach Editorial Director Lynda Clancy at firstname.lastname@example.org; 207-706-6657