Camden Select Board

Downtown Master Plan overwhelmingly approved

By Jenna Lookner | May 16, 2012
Photo by: Jenna Lookner Citizens spill out of the Washington Street Conference Room following the public comment and subsequent select board approval of the Camden Downtown Master Plan.

Camden — Tuesday, May 15, the Camden Select Board convened a 6 p.m. meeting to hear public comment on the 298 page Camden Downtown Master Plan. After about an hour of commentary, the select board made the unanimous decision to "accept and approve" the downtown master plan.

The downtown master plan is the cumulative effort of town government, dedicated work groups, and citizen input, according to Camden Development Director Brian Hodges. During an interview last month, Hodges said the plan created by civic leaders and town boards helped create a blueprint for the next step, but also made the creation of a downtown plan for Camden unusually cost-effective. Research has been ongoing since 2009, he said.

Hodges was the first to take the podium in the packed Washington Street conference room and explained the process behind creation of the document. Hodges said he went before the Select Board in September 2011 to ask for an allocation of $20,000 from the Economic Development Reserve Fund to create the Camden Downtown Master Plan. Hodges said the funds were generated by a lease the town has with Verizon for a cell phone tower, not from the General Fund made up of taxpayer dollars. The select board gave Hodges the go-ahead to form a selection committee and the town began to receive bids for the project. Hodges said the town of Camden received eight submissions in response to the bid request and in October the committee unanimously selected Lachman Architects and Planners, a consulting firm with extensive experience in downtown revitalization.

In November 2011 the select board gave the green light to Lachman Architects and Planners after hearing a detailed presentation from the firm including the expectations and timeline for completion of the document. Later that month a kick-off meeting took place.

Hodges said one of the most important aspects of the Camden Downtown Master Plan is to sustain what the town already has. Additionally certain grants require an existing master plan be in place before a community is eligible to apply, Hodges explained.

The first of two community meetings was held Jan. 26. The town also provided an online community survey and received 330 responses. Hodges read excerpts from an email he received from a colleague at the state level who had reviewed the master plan.The email referred to the plan as "a good document," and praised the amount of public input utilized in the creation of the document.

"I fully support the downtown master plan and I recommend that you support it as well," Hodges said to the select board.

Select Board Chairman Martin Cates asked for a three-minute limit on comments. He said anyone who did not get to finish their thoughts might have an opportunity to return to the podium later in the evening.

More than a dozen residents took the opportunity to voice support for the plan. Some read letters from residents who could not attend and others spoke on behalf of groups such as the historical resources committee and opera house committee. Not a single dissenting voice was heard.

Susan Dorr is chairwoman of the Opera House Committee. She said Hodges had taken the time to meet with her group and answer their questions. She said a major concern for the opera house is renovation of the third floor. She said Hodges told her the downtown master plan could make them eligible for grants that would assist with that renovation.

Dorr said "with that understanding" that opera house committee supports the downtown master plan.

Bernice Berger read a letter from Barrie Pribyl. Pribyl voiced her support for the "recent actions of the select board" in efforts to sustain year-round viability in Camden. Pribyl was one of several who reminded the crowd that Camden is sandwiched between the "two increasingly dynamic downtowns" of Rockland and Belfast.

"If there is no growth, decay follows," Pribyl said in her letter.

Former Select Board member Deborah Dodge followed the presentation of Pribyl's letter.

"This is no time for us to rest on our laurels," she said. Dodge said while residents may not choose to implement the downtown master plan "verbatim" she encouraged them not to "cherry pick the low-hanging fruit."

"We need to be bold," Dodge said.

Jeff Scott of the bicycle and pedestrian pathways committee praised the plan for it's focus on a more pedestrian-friendly downtown.

"More walkable equals more vibrant," he said.

Architect Chris Glass noted Camden has changed in climate — but not much in appearance — since he moved to town in 1974. He said Rockland and Belfast have thrived, while Camden has fallen behind.

"That wasn't even thinkable in 1974," Glass said. "Do we have the same imagination as those communities?"

Jane LaFleur said encouraged the use of a "similar public process" in setting priorities for projects outlined within the plan that they did in creation of the plan.

Robin McIntosh referred to the plan as "a living document." She said she moved to Camden in 1976.

"This gives us a place to start and a direction to head," she said.

Nancy Caudle-Johnson said the plan is a "Tour de force," she spoke with her own copy of the plan — which she said she paid to have printed — at her side. She said the hard copy is worth having and keeping as a reference. Caudle-Johnson praised Rodney Lynch for his work on the plan.

"He must be the champion grant writer in the state," she said.

At the close of public comment, the select board took turns speaking about the plan.

Don White praised the downtown master plan.

"It has brought the community together," he said. White also praised the continuing work of the sign working group.

"This is the most energized group I've seen the entire time I've been on the [select] board," said John French Jr.

Jim Heard said when he moved his family here it wasn't the buildings or the roads that ultimately attracted him — "It was the people."

The board unanimously approved the plan and urged the working group to begin developing priorities and timelines immediately.

Courier Publications reporter Jenna Lookner can be reached at 236-8511 or by email at jlookner@villagesoup.com.

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