What’s going on with the tannery? It’s a perennial question for Camden and an issue that provokes a lot of emotion for residents, past and present. What it was, what it should have been, what it could be, and who’s to blame are all frequent themes. It’s one of those stories that has so much history, almost anything can be said, and it will be true. 2023 will mark 20 years since the town of Camden took on ownership of the property and for those of us who’ve been here for most of it, it’s been a little like raising a child through multiple divorces where each parent blames the other for the bad behaviors. And then there are the grandparents chiming in and the “friends” of the child who give advice but are sometimes not friends at all. This wasn’t like the typical tax-acquired properties that the town ends up with due to nonpayment of taxes; not just a single-family home or a small forgotten vacant lot, but a symbol of the economic vitality of the town for over a century; a site intimately connected to both the natural and industrial history of our town, and now a battleground for its future.

Whatever your vision, cause, grievance, or political philosophy there’s probably a way to connect it to the discussion, and like a dysfunctional family arguing around the table at Christmas time, we all piece together the past a little differently. Some won’t come to Christmas dinner at all because of who they remember being there before and some will only stop in for a moment to see if the family has its act together yet. Hopefully as a town we can learn to have a bit of a sense of humor about this topic. The fact is that we are never going to all agree. The closest the town ever got to consensus on what should be done with that property was 20 years ago when everyone agreed that it was a big problem. Today, we don’t even agree on that, and maybe that’s ok.

Here’s brief history of some of the key points as collected by one person doing my best to sort things out:

  • Fifteen thousand years ago, as the glaciers receded, scraping the mountains, and forming the Megunticook River Valley, a mix of soils known as glacial till was deposited over the bedrock. Slowly, the lake and river channel were carved out and lined with these deposits. Native soils can be found about five to 15 feet below the current ground elevation at the tannery site. The tannery has been extensively studied and thousands of pages of reports can be found on the town website. Some of it will be of interest to geologists, even if you have no interest in the future of the property itself.
  • Much of the parcel, and what is now Washington Street, were once much lower and wetter than they are today. The floodplain extended out close to the road and fluctuated between periods of wet and dry.
  • When European settlers arrived, this is not one of the first sites chosen for a mill or a dam because the topography was not as conducive as other more prominent falls locations with a steeper grade.
  • The first known mill was built by Amasa Gould in the 1870s close to the Washington Street Bridge side of the property. There was a dam, a waterwheel, and a mill that made plugs and wedges for the shipping industry. In 1887 the site was sold and redeveloped as the Camden Woolen Mill. This is thought to be the time that a lot of fill in the form of gravel and boulders was brought in. This was needed to raise up the site and the road to make it less prone to flooding and ready for new buildings.
  • This was incredibly successful. The company sold woolen dresses for women and employed many people.
  • When the mill closed, a nationwide search was done by the chamber of commerce to attract another industry and in the early 1950s the Camden Tanning Corporation came to town as a family business that had been started in Massachusetts in 1911.
  • The plant turned hides into suede through a process that took about six weeks and for 40-50 years the Cox family kept things humming along, adapting to the changing requirements for wastewater treatment, employing many people in the community, and churning out a product that everyone was proud of. The front lawn was a place to run around and was frequented by kids passing to and from the schools on Knowlton Street.
  • In roughly 1955, the old mill dam was removed, and the Megunticook River transitioned away from being a source of power to being a source of process water for operations.
  • The site of the former dam is today the area of the river where IFW releases the stocked trout every year. This stretch of the river is one of the best for brook and rainbow trout because the free-flowing water is well oxygenated, and the vegetated banks and rocky channel provide the habitat diversity these fish need to stand a chance.
  • In the late 1990s, ownership transferred to the Apollo Tannery and things started to go downhill. A series of fires and probably many things I don’t remember or never knew led to the decline and ultimate bankruptcy of the operation.
  • The property was essentially abandoned along with hazards ranging from asbestos to chromium-contaminated soils to unstable buildings to underground storage tanks.
  • In 2003 the site was taken over by the town of Camden and later, voters approved $960,000 in cleanup costs which is about $1.4 million when adjusted for inflation. This was always known to be only a portion of the total cleanup that would be needed.
  • In 2005 Summit oversaw the demolition of the tannery buildings and subsequent removal of demolition debris (including asbestos) and hazardous wastes associated with past operations at the property. Hazardous materials removed as a portion of the demolition process were chromium-based dyes, lanolin, and wastewater.
  • Since then, the property is perhaps the most studied parcel in town. A series of town committees and task forces studied the property and proposed acceptable and unacceptable uses, all of which centered around economic development and an intense marketing campaign that centered around attracting a new business that could provide jobs.
  • In 2008, a portion of the site was remediated as part of a voluntary program with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and a town-sponsored work group developed recommendations and an action plan for reuse of the site.
  • In 2010, the “guiding principles” were approved by voters for the first time at Town Meeting authorizing the Select Board to pursue buyers for the property that could provide good quality year-round jobs.
  • Camden’s notorious “free land for jobs” campaign included significant outreach and many criteria for an appropriate buyer. The effort had mixed results, depending on who you ask.
  • Some will tell you that there was no interest in the property because of the ongoing liability. Others will say the NIMBY (not in my backyard) forces in the neighborhood scared away all reasonable interest. Others will say that the town of Camden was misguided in in its approach to marketing the property.
  • In 2011, voters supported a conservation easement with Coastal Mountains Land Trust that would forever protect a section along the river as a public path. This was the first section of the riverwalk to be completed and an excellent spot to see the river in its free-flowing condition. There are now two other sections of the riverwalk.
  • A series of parties came forward and expressed interest as part of the marketing campaign. People in town argued about the viability of various business models and expressed their typical skepticism. One of these proposals was a film studio and mention of it can still elicit a range of sarcastic comments.
  • The Select Board started to grow frustrated with community reactions to some of the opportunities that came forward. Around 2015, a proposal from Northeast Ambulance seemed like it could have met many of the criteria that voters have supported, but a neighborhood campaign rallied against it with the type of urgency that other communities reserve for nuclear waste.
  • Many of the people in town and in the neighborhood had never known the Tannery (many others had). The grassy areas and the crumbling building foundations combined with the riverwalk path started to look more like a nice public park than a site prime for development. It was nice to have a part of town that didn’t have to be perfect and where there were none of the complex rules of Harbor Park and the Village Green.
  • The Select Board put out a straw poll question on the ballot attempting to get clarity from the community on what they wanted. They asked people to choose between two options for the site: do you want a business/commercial use, or do you want park/green space? The results were a near tie with commercial uses coming out slightly ahead by a few percentage points. Some objected to the wording of the question. Why can’t we have everything?
  • In 2015 and 2016, the town of Camden worked with the Mid-Coast Economic Development District and got funding to do an assessment of additional cleanup work that would need to be done before the site was marketable.
  • In 2016 Ransom Consulting’s report identified some risk of exposure to certain contaminants for certain categories of uses including residential and outdoor workers. As such, Ransom recommended the completion of an Analysis of Brownfields Cleanup Alternatives and Conceptual Remedial Action Plan to evaluate and select the most appropriate cleanup or remedial action(s) for the site.
  • Also, in 2015 another work group was formed, and a consultant was hired to facilitate and try and get to the heart of what the community wanted. Some quit the committee for various reasons. Terms like “death by committee” and “vocal minority” were used both fairly and unfairly.
  • Those who remained on the committee recommended a multi-use approach which focused heavily on park and open space and concluded that no additional cleanup was necessary. Several community meetings were held at the middle school. I was personally asked by a town official not to share photos of the riverbank at one of those meetings (yes, I know I have baggage from the past too, we all do).
  • Many who had been involved in the process for a long time were bewildered by the suggestion that one of Camden’s most important commercial properties be absorbed as a town park. Others saw it as a potential environmental triumph of green space over industry.
  • The Farmers Market began leasing the site for $1 during the summer months. This appears to be one of the least controversial things to come about. Throughout the entire timeline Camden had changes in Select Board members, town staff, residents, and town managers. Three new Select Board members and a new Town Manager came on in 2017.
  • Additional funding for cleanup was sought and obtained from the EPA Brownfields Program.
  • Some community members noticed that a significant amount of solid waste and debris associated with former mill and tannery operations could be seen along the riverbank and the EPA did additional testing after confirming that the riverbank had never been assessed.
  • It was hoped that cleanup assistance funding from the EPA could be coordinated with a future use of the site so as to most efficiently prioritize areas that needed soil cover or excavation. Select Board released a broadly worded RFP that sought all types of proposals for the tannery. The criteria included the requirement that a space be provided for the Camden Farmers Market and acknowledged the riverwalk easement. Four proposals were received and reviewed by the town Community and Economic Development Committee.
  • The Select Board was unable to reach an agreement on a proposal to put out to voters in time for the June 2021 election.
  • In order to meet the deadline for the EPA cleanup grant, it will not be possible to coordinate the targeted areas with a future development plan. The remediation will prioritize actions that keep the possibilities for the property as flexible as possible for all uses.
  • High levels of lead and some other contaminants were identified in the soil borings and test pits along the river, but a plan has not yet been developed on the appropriate action here. Current funding is not sufficient to expand the area targeted for cleanup to this section.
  • In summary, the property is zoned for commercial use and only allows for residential uses on the second floor, but a zoning change, if approved by voters, is not out of the question.
  • There is still not complete agreement on what needs to be cleaned up. Some of that depends on what happens there. Part of it is in the flood zone. One time, for several days, heavy rainfall washed out Washington Street and the Bridge, which turned the entire property into an island.
  • Any sale of the property must first be agreed on by the majority of the Select Board and then approved by a town wide vote.
  • In a December 2021 Select Board workshop to discuss next steps in the EPA Brownfields funding, the Camden town manager reminded the board of what all locals already know. There is nothing that will make everyone happy when it comes to this property. Someone is going to be disappointed.

Merry Christmas and enjoy the riverwalk. Let’s all try to be patient and forgiving with our neighbors and family members even if they remember things a little differently.

Alison McKellar is vice-chair of The Camden Select Board. Her views are her own and do not reflect the editorial position of The Camden Herald.

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