The Friends of River Park have been working for months on a proposal to transform the former Apollo Tannery site on Washington Street into a park.

The proposal includes relocating the Camden Farmers Market, which currently operates in the parking lot behind the Knox Mill, to a permanent home on the site.

"This [proposal] tells the story of Camden going from an old mill town to a town that can support families by buying locally," said Tom Resek, a member of Friends of River Park.

At the same time, the town has appointed a 16-member Tannery Re-Use Committee, formed this winter following a split vote in November 2014 on whether townspeople would like to see the nearly 3.5-acre parcel used as commercial or open space. The group has met twice and is expected to meet again Tuesday, July 28, at 4 p.m. at the Opera House.

Tannery timeline

 

The property was once owned by Apollo Tannery, where animal hides were processed into leather in a factory that dominated the part of town nicknamed Millville. The tannery operated on the property for 46 years.

Apollo closed in October 1999 following a spring fire and subsequent financial problems. Cleanup costs associated with removing contaminants from the property on Washington Street became a central issue in the bankruptcy case of Apollo Tanning Ltd.

The town acquired the site in a tax lien foreclosure in March 2003. That September, voters gave the Select Board the authority to sell the 3.5 acres.

In 2005 voters approved borrowing $836,000 for the cleanup, which included the demolition and removal of the buildings and underground tanks. In September 2005, the tannery buildings were demolished. Approximately 2,100 tons of contaminated soil was removed from the site.

In 2008, a 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 that are also well paid. To qualify for the rebate, the buyer was to create 24 net new jobs within five years of the completion of construction and improvements to the site.

The property was determined ready for sale in 2008 when the last load of industrially contaminated soil was carried away to a safe landfill in Scarborough, concluding the cleanup of the site.

In fall 2010, there was interest in developing a fish-processing business there, but that did not materialize.

In spring 2011, the Select Board signed a $175,000 purchase and sale agreement with B'D' Turman'D Entertainment LLC of Milwaukee, Wis., to develop sound stages and soundproof structures on the site. Five weeks after first coming to the town, the company terminated its interest for the site with the town. The company's primary concerns included the land configuration and its size in relation to the plans to construct two 18,000-square-foot studios.

Last August, North East Mobile Health Services, which operates the local ambulance service for Camden, Rockport, Lincolnville and a portion of Hope, had a purchase and sale agreement with the town to relocate its ambulance service to the site. When the company released the town from negotiations, it said it planned to look for another site that "includes sufficient space and a building on site that could meet North East's needs."

"This is a nice, simple solution. There is no downside to it," said Steve Gold, who is a member of both committees. Resek also is a member of the Re-Use Committee.

The River Park group, which has about 10 active members and more than 70 on its mailing list, proposes a partnership between the town, the Camden Farmers Market and the Friends of River Park, which will serve as a fundraising organization. The Camden Farmers Market will lease space and provide rental income to the town in exchange for a permanent market.

The proposal has gained the support of both the Camden Farmers Market and Coastal Mountains Land Trust, which holds a trail easement for the river walk that runs along the perimeter of the tannery site.

The citizens group has yet to bring its design plans to the town because the Select Board is waiting for a report from the Re-use Committee. The River Park group has asked to present its plans to the Re-Use Committee and has been told the group will be able to present their ideas at a later date.

The group intends to fund raise and hopes to secure grants to pay for the establishment of the park.

Meg Barclay, a member of the group with an architecture background, has sketched two possible site plans. One plan, which the group sees as an achievable solution in the short-term, would use two existing entrances on the lot near the side closest to Rawson Avenue and one closer to the middle of the lot. The entire middle area would have a grass grid installed, which is a plastic matrix in the soil that still allows for grass to grow through, but prevents the ground being torn up by automobiles. This is where the farmers market would set up.

In the corner closest to where the river walk begins would be a playground and close to the existing slab on the site would be picnic tables and benches and possibly bases for sculptures to be displayed, Barclay said. The plan calls for leaving the slab, because the group is unsure what kind of contamination lies below it and if it is moved, any pollution, could be disturbed, she said. A grass strip would also be planted along Washington Street as a traffic-calming measure.

A second sketch includes an open-air pole barn for a covered market area, which could be an optional long-range vision, Barclay said. Friends member Eleanor Masin-Peters said that would provide a sheltered area for the farmers market so it could go on no matter the weather. It also could be a building with solar panels installed on it for town use, similar to a plan being explored for the Public Works garage, she said.

"The only thing we are hoping for at the moment is the first plan, which we believe we have the capacity to finance through fundraising and grants," Barclay said.

Since the farmers market operates two days a week, Wednesdays and Saturdays, the Friends envision it could be used as an outdoor event center of sorts — for concerts, craft fairs, dog shows, and the like, when the market is not running. The town could generate money for such events, Gold said.

Gold said because of the referendum in November and the money the town has spent thus far to mitigate the pollution, many people in town would like to see tax money being generated from the site, but he feels it is unsuitable as a commercial development.

"Any developer looking at this would say, 'Am I suicidal?'" Gold said, noting the environmental covenants, dimension of the lot, and other factors at play.

"It is a difficult site to develop with buildings," Barclay added.

Doug Sensenig, executive director of Coastal Mountains Land Trust, said he would love to see a use of the property that complements the land trust, brings an increased use of the river walk and provides a destination point on the river walk. Plans are under way to extend the river walk from the tannery site further up the river to Seabright Dam on Mt. Battie Street.

"We support uses of the property that will complement the river walk and increase its use," Sensenig wrote in a letter to the editor.

Coastal Mountains Land Trust has been involved with the property for many years. The Land Trust holds a trail easement along the Megunticook River on the property that protects the river walk trail.

The farmers market supports many area jobs and attracts many people to Camden who visit other businesses while they are in town, Sensenig said.

Gold said the group's proposal is the "highest and best use for the property," which is exactly what the town's criterion is for the site. The farmers market vendors each employ at least one person, but all the growers employ multiple people, with estimates of around 60 jobs directly dependent on the market.

The Camden Farmers Market has 31 vendors, 10 which sell fruits and vegetables, six produce an array of dairy products, five raise meat, two grow flowers and many others produce a variety of baked goods, sauces, pizza, teas, wood products and soaps.

In February, members of the farmers market voted to form a committee to focus solely on the goal of finding a permanent home for Camden Farmers Market.

"The tannery site is the best and nearly only option," said Mike Bahner, president of the Camden Farmers Market.

Another option, Bahner said, is the former Rockport Elementary School site on the corner of West Street and Route 90 in Rockport. However, he noted, then the question comes up if the group would have to change its name, since it would no longer be in Camden. That is something they weigh heavily, he said, since Camden Farmers Market has been in operation for 41 years under the same name and is the longest running market in Maine.

"We have a long tradition in Camden, and it's something our customers and us find a lot of value in," Bahner said.

The farmers market is now located in the parking lot at the Knox Mill, and Bahner noted the group has a great relationship with Matt Orne, the owner of the Knox Mill, but he said the market setup is not ideal, since vendors have to organize themselves in a row.

Ideally, he said, a circular setup is best and they would also like to incorporate events, such as concerts, into the weekly markets, which is difficult on the current site because customers cannot hear the music when they are shopping on the opposite end.

The location on a busy main street also is another positive for the farmers market relocation.

The farmers market committee is expected to vote this week on whether to pursue the tannery site, he said. "We want to have an event space — we are an event," Bahner said.

Courier Publications Editor Kim Lincoln can be reached at 236-8511 or by email at klincoln@villagesoup.com.