Downtown Camas craves a comeback

Hit hard by recession, area sees empty storefronts start to fill up

By Cami Joner, Columbian retail & real estate reporter

Published:

 
photoClick to enlarge.
photoBrenda Schallberger

Having weathered recent hard times, downtown Camas merchants are trying to position their Norman Rockwell-like business district for a comeback.

These days, commerce isn't exactly thriving on the city's tree-lined section of Northeast Fourth Avenue. A half-dozen buildings and storefronts remain vacant, and some of the offices that once added to the downtown's flavor have also disappeared.

But Camas leaders and businesses pin their hopes for the sector's recovery on downtown staples, such as the refurbished 85-year-old Liberty Theater, a few destination restaurants, boutiques and a martial arts studio that draws repeat regulars. Many are now touting recently announced plans for a new downtown brewpub as the city's newest salvation.

Those Camas shopkeepers and city officials confess the task of building on their modest gains won't be easy, given contracting city budgets and consumers who are holding on tighter than ever to their shrunken disposable incomes.

Seasoned business owners say they would advise downtown startups to have a fail-safe business plan and provide selection, service and community support.

"In the 10 years since I've been here, I've seen each year, maybe three businesses open and one doesn't make it," said Dawn Stanchfield, owner of Lily Atelier, a downtown women's clothing boutique.

She predicted the brewpub planned at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Cedar Street will have a successful run if its operators come up with the right mix of product.

Stanchfield also owns a women's shoes and accessories shop called Luxe, adjacent to Lily Atelier. "We're always looking for more retailers," she said. "We want some good, healthy businesses down here."

Mill City Brew Werks

The proposed Camas brewpub could be up and running by May or June, according to Mark Zech, one of three partners behind the startup, called Mill City Brew Werks. Zech hopes public response to his group's craft beer will be as favorable as that of the home brew's 300-plus Facebook fans.

"It has been a hobby that we've been pursuing as a business for the last year," said Zech, a project manager at Camas-based PLEXSYS Interface Products Inc., which develops software for defense contractors.

Zech and his partners are in the process of purchasing the downtown building. The business will include a basement brewing operation and street-level bar with a restaurant and seating for 75 customers.

Downtown advocates including Brenda Schallberger, recently hired as part-time program coordinator for the Downtown Camas Association, expect Zech's business to boost the area's vibrancy, despite today's shrinking middle class and the still-sluggish economy. She predicts Mill City Brew Werks will attract local craft beer enthusiasts who are now driving to Portland's niche market of breweries.

"It's the whole Portland vibe that we want to bring here to Camas," Schallberger said during a recent foot-tour of the small town's main Fourth Avenue drag.

Still, she remains cautious. "I hate to sound Pollyanna," she added.

Downtown vacancies

Camas is still dotted with vacant buildings and spaces that reflect four years of recession. The period saw downtown closures that included boutiques My Nana's Cottage, Mo Mo's, Accentuate, La Rev, River Quilts, The Uncommon Gift and a skateboard shop called 360, among others.

Although plans are in the works to replace Oliver's Restaurant, that venue is empty and a handful of offices also are gone from Fourth Avenue. The quaint, tree-lined corridor -- complete with early 1900s-style streetlamps and sidewalks -- stretches six blocks southeast from the town's beautifully renovated library at Northeast Garfield Street to a Northeast Adams Street stoplight at the hulking Georgia-Pacific Corp. paper mill, owned by Koch Industries.

"The mill once employed 5,000 people and they would swarm this town," Schallberger said of the downtown core's original source of consumers.

Today, the mill employs about 540 people, according to Caroline Mercury, a company spokeswoman.

Schallberger, a former resident who recently moved back to the area, said new Camas residents aren't as familiar with the mill's history, which is why her group plans to launch a historical walking tour through the downtown. Schallberger, 51, said she remembers the pre-recession glory of downtown Camas.

"I'm very community-oriented and I thought, 'That would be a great job if I could plan to improve the vitality of this beautiful little town,'" she said.

Changing times

It was nearly one decade ago when the city-appointed Downtown Visioning Coalition embarked on a plan to transform Camas from a Columbia River mill town to a stretch of trendy boutiques for well-to-do suburbanites. Money for downtown revitalization projects, including street work, benches, public art and the refurbished library, hearkens back to that earlier time.

Since then, the economy was hit by the recession and a housing slump, said Paul Dennis, president of the nonprofit Camas-Washougal Economic Development Association, or CWEDA. Dennis served as Camas mayor from 2005 through May 2011, when he stepped down to lead CWEDA, which is focused on business recruitment and helping existing businesses in Camas and Washougal.

"All you have to do is look at the significant downturn in the construction industry," he said.

By 2009, property values had plummeted for new Camas homes and so-called McMansions that had sprouted to serve the town's newer business sector -- technology plants in west Camas such as WaferTech and Sharp Microelectronics.

The city had contributed more than $4.7 million to the Camas Downtown Association from 2005 through 2010. It did not provide any funding to the group in 2011, after the tough housing market bit an $800,000 hole in the city's budget, said Camas Mayor Scott Higgins.

But the city council passed a 2012 budget that included $15,000 to staff the downtown association. Higgins said city leaders will have to vote again this year on whether to continue the contribution in 2013. He hopes it will be supported.

"We really believe things are about to turn around downtown," Higgins said.

Changes for the better

Stanchfield, owner of Lily Atelier, said she's noticed customers are spending more freely this year.

"They are still being very thoughtful and cautious," she said.

Traffic to her boutique also has increased since Universal Jiu Jitsu opened a gym next door in September. The martial arts studio attracts between 75 and 100 people per day, said Mel Locke, co-owner with his wife Cheryl Locke of the business, which was founded in 1998 in Vancouver.

"Business is really good," said Mel Locke, who purchased the building at 214 N.E. Fourth Ave. that formerly housed a tavern called The Turf as a home for the gym. The couple remodeled the entire building into two training floors with restrooms, changing rooms and a front counter. The work uncovered existing skylights and a wall of exposed brick that are now part of the gym.

"We like the visibility," right off Northeast Adams Street, which carries traffic into the downtown core from the state Highway 14 exit into Camas, Mel Locke said. "There's probably 200 cars a day going by."

Rand Thornsley would like a few more of those vehicles to make a left turn on Fourth Avenue to attend a Saturday matinee or an evening feature at the Liberty Theater at 315 N.E. Fourth Ave.

Attendance counts increased slightly this year over last year at the movie venue, which he manages as part of Rootstock Capital Management. But the business hasn't stayed on an even keel since he began leasing the Liberty in February 2011, Thornsley said.

"It's been kind of a roller coaster," he said.

Others say downtown Camas has gone through the worst of the downturn. They expect things to change for the better now, said Brent Erickson, executive director of the Camas-Washougal Chamber of Commerce.

"I'm seeing a cycle," Erickson said. "With the brewpub coming in, that will generate others to look at the downtown core and the areas around it. I think we'll start seeing an uptick in things happening."