Civic News

Why this tiny Maine town is a (surprising) hub of big ideas

With events like the Camden Conference, PopTech and the Camden International Film Festival, the town of 5,000 is more than just a state park and picturesque bodies of water.

A view of Camden Harbor. (Courtesy of Karen Brace of the Town of Camden)
This is a guest post by Joan Phaup.

This is part of a series called Postcards, where we feature guest posts from places outside of’s five core markets. Email editor-in-chief Zack Seward at if you’re interested in contributing.

A new job brought my husband, our two young children and me from London, England, to Camden, Maine, 22 years ago.

We were willing to give small-town life a go, assuming we’d be city people again before long. But here we remain, immersed in a community with spectacular surroundings, a vibrant cultural life and an inquisitive, dynamic spirit that grabbed us from the start and has never let go.

This classic New England town of 5,000, perched between the Camden Hills and Penobscot Bay, undoubtedly has its quaint side. But many locals have the future high on their agendas. They are professionals with experience in government, education, business and the arts, who want to keep pace with the world and address its challenges.

I realized we’d landed in a small town with big ideas shortly after moving into our new home in 1995. Within days, on a frigid February Saturday, we attended a panel discussion on Chinese politics. That conversation was part of the Camden Conference, a 30-year-old gathering that has engaged delegates — locals as well as enthusiasts from far afield — in everything from the politics of energy and water to the impact of globalization.

The Camden Conference is one of three annual events that engage participants with the latest thinking on world affairs, technology, social trends, politics and just about any other subject you can name.

Participants watching virtual reality documentaries at the Camden International Film Festival.

Participants watch virtual reality documentaries at the Camden International Film Festival. (Photo via CIFF – Points North East)

PopTech, which has happened here since 1996, brings together trailblazers from science, technology, the arts, business and other fields to create lasting change. The 12-year-old Camden International Film Festival is part of the Points North Institute. The institute runs a filmmaker forum during the festival for documentarians from all over the world and offers educational programs at other times, often in collaboration with the Maine Media Workshops.

Our town feels like a campus. It’s a stimulating place for learning and networking. Attendees gather in the Camden Opera House for keynotes and other major events. They fan out in smaller groups at the library, restaurants, cafes and parks — or even on the bay aboard schooners. They unplug from their normal preoccupations to meet colleagues, learn from each other, strengthen their connections and — free of their customary concerns — think more creatively.

One afternoon last September, I finished work and swam in Megunticook Lake (seven minutes from home) shortly before going to the opera house (three minutes from home) to view Kirsten Johnson’s film, “Cameraperson,” and hear her Q&A. It’s not unusual to follow hiking, sailing, swimming or skiing with an event most people would only expect to find in a big city: a keynote about developments in Sub-Saharan Africa by NPR’s Ofeibea Quist-Arcton; a talk about curiosity and outer space by Adam Steltzner, chief engineer of NASA’s Mars 2020 project or an address by artificial intelligence researcher Dr. David Ferrucci about the potential for collaboration between humans and machines.

This combination of the great outdoors with world-class learning opportunities still astounds me. As my friends and I often exclaim, “Can you believe we live here? Where else could we do this?”

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