This is a comeback story.
It’s a story of a strong community: the behind the scenes renderings of persistent leadership and passionate citizens– all willing their beloved community back to life again.
Things in Camden, Ohio, were a little bleak: buildings were vacant. The downtown was broken and blighted. Some of those buildings, even the historic ones, were eyesores.
But Camden was not down for the count.
They were simply lying in wait: stretching, flexing, planning, teambuilding. They were putting in the work. And the result– what’s happening there– is nothing short of remarkable.
On the Map
The village of Camden is located in Preble County, in southwestern Ohio. “Camden is pretty unique in a lot of areas,” explains Deputy Village Administrator, Benjamin Gunderson. “While we’re a village that is just a hair short of 2,000 people, we are at the crossroads of two state routes. There’s only one main road that goes north and south through the county– and that goes right through town.” There’s another state route that goes through the downtown to the Indiana border. “So for our small little town, we have a lot of traffic that goes through here, whether they’re coming to town or not, I’d say that’s a unique advantage.”
Camden is perhaps best known in the region for hosting the Black Walnut Festival in October each year. There are over 120 vendors, a craft show, an antique show, a parade, live music, many contests, and lots of fall family fun. The car show, a major draw, took up two full roads this year. “It brings a lot of people to the town, which helps not only our businesses but it also lets people know where Camden is,” notes Gunderson. “The Black Walnut Festival is something we’ve been known for.” Most recently, it brought upwards of 10,000 folks to the village to enjoy the festivities.
Small Town Pride
“Camden is very small,” Gunderson says. “But we take a lot of pride in our parks. We’ve spent a lot of money over the years on our parks.” They recently added a splash pad, which, Gunderson adds, is the only one in the county. “Although that’s fairly common in bigger cities, for a small little village like us, it’s huge.”
That small town pride shows up all over Camden. “We have a lot of people that are passionate and want to move the village forward,” says Gunderson. That shows up in donations to the parks, or in the annual fundraiser called Tyler Strong, held in honor of a little boy, Tyler, who passed away. The fundraiser raises money for the parks in Camden. “There’s just a lot of community pride here,” Gunderson gushes.
That same pride also shows up in participation. For example, the town held Yoga in the Park every Saturday during the summer in Shank Park, one of the two parks in town. “We received so much support for that! We actually brought out goat yoga for the community,” Gunderson laughs. “It was quite funny to see everyone interact with the goats and do yoga.”
Yoga continues, in the cold months, over at the Dover. The Dover is a perfect example of the spirit of Camden: it’s an old church that a Camden couple renovated into a community center. It houses events, meetings, parties, and community Bingo nights.
Big Time Effort
Camden recently joined Heritage Ohio, an organization that focuses on historic preservation, along with revitalizing downtown areas. Gunderson says they help generate ways to draw people to the downtown. “It’s a trickle down effect,” he states. “The more people we can drive to the downtown area, the more inclined businesses are to locate there– and the more inclined people are to move here.”
Gunderson is also quick to credit another organization, fittingly called Camden Comeback. It’s a group of professional women who, according to Gunderson, “are just excellent. They are very goal oriented and result driven.” They host events, provide marketing on social media, and sit on boards. “It was really started for economic development purposes,” he explains. “But they’ve changed the community’s image.”
A Building Boom
That image is what everyone is buzzing about these days. Gunderson reports that Camden is in a “growth period now, and it’s starting to really show.”
“Growth period” might be an understatement, actually. The building is booming in Camden these days.
“We were a food desert for about two years,” Gunderson explains. “The closest grocery store was in Eaten, which is 7 miles away. Or, people would go to Hamilton, which is 20 minutes away.” Last year, though, Camden welcomed a new grocery store to town: The Dollar General Market. This $2 million dollar project brought 10-20 new jobs along with it, too. “It’s the first stand-alone Dollar General Market in the state of Ohio,” says Gunderson. “It’s a huge addition… it sits right along the main stretch… it offers meat and produce… everything the community needs.”
Medship, a medical supply company, specializes in shipping at-home wound care products. “That company- the owners- are from Camden. And they really want to give back to Camden,” Gunderson notes. “They really target more of the local residents for those jobs, too.” Medship has plans to tear down three vacant buildings in the downtown and replace them with a new 8,000 square foot brick building. They plan to tear down two more buildings across the street and put in a parking lot– fully landscaped and open to the public. And while they are at it, the owners are also going to put in a coffee shop and a bakery. Gunderson says Medship has about 20 employees now, but that number should reach 50 within the next five years. “About 30% of the total cost of that project will come from state funding,” Gunderson adds. “It’s pretty huge. That just shows a lot of support for that project.”
“It will be a huge addition to the downtown. If you look now… much of that area is multi-family housing and most of it is vacant and blighted. So this is going to really clean up a significant amount.”
And just across the street, is yet another new project. It’s a combination of refurbishing another vacant building (it’s been empty for 10 years) that’s a historic brick house. Camden will be adding a 2500 square foot addition. It will house a community technology center, with a technology center and library on the bottom floor and rentable office space on the top floor. Gunderson is hoping the school district will occupy that office space. “It’s really the best package that you could ask for in terms of community impact,” reports Gunderson.
Ohio Slitting and Storage just completed a $17.5 million dollar expansion in Camden. They provide full slitting and storage services for steel coils. This expansion will likely employ 30-50 new people.
Gunderson believes these projects will go a long way in further revitalizing the downtown area. “It’s going to generate some pretty good tax revenue for us. And we have a lot of business incentives that are in that downtown area. So once we get those buildings built and those businesses in, we’ll take an aggressive approach at the streetscape.”
In addition, Camden is also working on a couple of much needed road projects. The multi-million dollar road improvement will help mitigate traffic and crashes at one of the busiest intersections in the Village. By adding turning lanes and potentially closing a side street, it will allow for a more fluid flow of traffic and eliminate the existing weaving and maneuvering of traffic.
Gunderson would love to extend that infrastructure north, too. “We are looking at extending our water and wastewater north. There’s a contiguous 87 acres to the north side of town that we’ve planned to put some sort of business or industrial park there… That’s the only direction we can expand. If we want to capture some more tax dollars, income tax, property tax, and really drive public investment into the downtown area… that’s really where we’re at: ensuring that we get businesses out there to help support those goals.”
The Camden Comeback
Camden’s story, in many ways, mirrors that of her historic town hall. Built in 1889, it’s been an opera house, police department, fire department, and jail. It’s held community events like dances, graduations, and basketball games. It’s been condemned, and brought back to life more times than one can count. There was even a fire there, causing it to be vacant for over 20 years. But, like the people here, it was strong, sturdy, and full of surprises. With some innovation, some renovation, and a whole lot of dedication from the folks that love their village, the Camden Town Hall was finally restored, with the main floor opening back up again in 2017.
Another $2.5 million dollar renovation will complete the project, so the top floor can be used once again. “We’re targeting more of a multi-use entertainment space up there with a stage,” Gunderson explains.
The Camden Town Hall reflects what’s happening in the village of Camden. It’s a building— and a village— that is deeply loved. And that love is writing the best kind of story.
It’s called the Camden Comeback.