Building ties in the community

By Karen Brace | Mar 29, 2016

The 22 members of Camden’s Budget Committee are hard at work this time of year reviewing the proposed town budget. The group meets a total of six times this month for two hours, including every Thursday evening. It is tough work to review each line of the document that details the budget which will support the functions of our town in the coming year.

I’ve participated in the last two meetings of the committee to help present the proposed budget of the Planning and Development Department. Since I hadn’t addressed the Budget Committee before, and with the Community Development Director position being relatively new, I decided to begin my presentation with a description of the various elements of the job. At that time it occurred to me that this was a good opportunity to invite feedback on the approaches I’ve been taking toward Camden’s goals since my start eight months ago. For this reason I thought I would share the same description with you.

As a native of this area, those of you who know me or have worked with me are aware that I have a strong commitment and passion for Camden that drives my work.

My work is:

— To strengthen the community and its year-round economy

— To serve as a liaison to organizations and state agencies

— To make new connections, engage citizens, and to help make this a great place to live and work.

I’m a collaborator and I feel that’s the way we get things done. I believe divisiveness slows us down. So, with collaborators and volunteers I work on the vitality of our community and our downtown. This happens at a very grass-roots level, by linking and coordinating our efforts.

A way we’re making an impact is through creating an economic climate that young people want to come back to. It’s exciting to see that members of the next generation are choosing to return to Camden. Sometimes they bring a business with them or operate remotely. We make sure the technology’s here so they can do that. Lately several millennials have come home to take over or join their family business. They want to bring their kids up here to experience the quality of life that they did growing up.

The young people who stay are now enriching their hometown. Helping these new businesspeople work through their challenges as they settle in is one of my favorite parts of the job. We all find it very encouraging when young people come back. We need them. But we need a strong year-round economy to sustain them.

I have long been committed to helping our citizens earn a steady, consistent living through all 12 months of the year. Toward this end, I work hard on initiatives to grow our winter season economy. Having worked with the Chamber of Commerce, I am aware that the year-round service businesses in our area outnumber hospitality-related businesses. This is a critically important element that distinguishes our community from other coastal destinations in Maine. It’s a strong motivator to live here, work here, and stay here.

I serve as town liaison to our three major conferences: the Camden International Film Festival, the Camden Conference and PopTech. A large impact is made locally by these events, all three of which occur outside of our town’s busiest summer months and put Camden, Maine in the spotlight. Needless to say, conferences are vitally important to our off-season economy.

Last year, a study was done by a professor at the University of Maine who researched the economic impact of the Camden Conference each February. The report came back estimating, conservatively, $750,000 of local economic impact — that’s money coming into our winter economy through hospitality and use of services. Not to mention the cultural and educational enrichment experienced by residents and students during each of these three unique events. Last week I made a presentation to recruit a new conference to Camden that has potential for significant future impact, and another potential conference is under discussion by Camden’s economic advisory committee.

My office helps to strengthen Camden’s year-round economy by pulling together groups of committed citizens who help put on five festivals per year, four of which occur during the slower months. A small group of us expanded Winterfest into a nine-day event, partnering with the U.S. National Toboggan Championships to bring visitors, fun, and press attention to Camden in the heart of winter. Grass-roots volunteerism makes it happen.

The Community Development Director staffs several town boards and committees, one of which is the Design Team of the Downtown Network Board. This team looks at potential improvements for our downtown and is about to test five new street lights along Atlantic Avenue. If the test goes as we hope, new energy-efficient LEDs lasting an average of 18 years could replace the current bulbs that burn out in 12 to 48 months. And, this improvement could save $3,600 per year in electricity or $66,000 over the life of the bulbs. The new type of bulb is expected to produce softer, warmer light. We hope residents will go take a look at the new bulbs later this spring and report their feelings back to us.

The Tannery Work Group, another committee I staff, works in a very different and no less important subject area. They are charged with determining what the community sees as the best use of the former Apollo Tannery site on Washington Street. Fourteen volunteers have met faithfully for more than a year now to study options. They have made great strides, moving from individuals with widely differing opinions to a group that shares a cohesive sense of direction. Again, it’s an example of a divisive issue moving toward consensus given leadership and an open forum within which to collaborate. As you know, Camden sorely needs this. The Tannery Group is a model for how we can continue to solve local issues.

It’s a privilege to be the first to fill the role of Community Development Director. I look forward to building new ties with citizens each day as we collectively work toward setting and pursuing common goals.

I ended my remarks to the Budget Committee by saying that my door is always open to discuss these or new initiatives that are important to you, and I welcome your input.

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