Lisa Walters moved to Battle Ground 17 years ago to escape the trappings of city life in Portland.
“I wanted to bring my children out here away from the crime in the city,” said Walters, now Battle Ground mayor. “I grew up as an Army brat. We moved every two years. It was very important to me for my children to have that stability of a small town and the ability to grow up and graduate from high school with the same friends.”
That year, Battle Ground’s population was about 5,000. Now there are nearly 18,000.
Growth has been good for generating revenue and diversifying the community, Walters said. At the same time, it has resulted in heavy traffic, most notably on state Highway 503 and Main Street, which turns into state Highway 502.
“It’s losing some of its small-town feel, even though it’s still a bedroom community,” said Battle Ground resident Jerry Berdahl, 74.
Reconciling the need for economic development with a desire to preserve small-town values and charm is a universal struggle in small cities facing growth.
That struggle is far from over for Clark County’s small cities, and the effort will be harder from some than others.
The county’s small cities experienced a boom in the late 1990s and early 2000s before the Great Recession. Their proximity to Portland make them ripe for more growth as the economy slowly recovers.
By 2024, the population is projected to quintuple in Ridgefield, triple in Battle Ground and La Center, and grow by nearly 74 percent in Camas and 61 percent in Washougal, according to county estimates.
Striking a balance
Julie Richey, 33, of La Center said she likes living in a small town because it’s easy to get to know her neighbors, residents stay for a long time, and she feels she and her children are safe.
“I like the small-town feel, low crime, the feeling of family within the community,” Richey said.
Richey doesn’t want La Center ever to lose those qualities, but she also would like to have a grocery store in town.
City leaders typically value small-town flavor as much as their neighbors, but they also recognize the need to bring in business for tax dollars. Residents cost more and pay less in taxes than their commercial counterparts.
Residents cost an average of $1.50 for every $1 of taxes they pay their city, whereas retail costs 60 cents for every $1 of revenue it generates, said Washougal Councilman Paul Greenlee.
“If all you are is a bedroom community, you have a model that’s not sustainable,” Greenlee said.
Plus, businesses provide jobs and can help keep residents working in town instead of being commuters who vacate the city during the day.
How can city leaders strike a balance between those two forces?
Community events, civic engagement, city planning, strategic economic development and other factors can be manipulated to retain or create the feeling Richey described. But other factors may be beyond leaders’ control.
Layout can help or hurt a small city’s sense of community, said Eric Hovee, principal at Vancouver economic development firm E.D. Hovee & Company.
For instance, Battle Ground’s layout presents more challenges to maintaining a small-town feel than Camas’.
Battle Ground’s downtown is separate from its growth hot spots. Battle Ground Councilman Bill Ganley described Highway 503 as the “Berlin Wall” of the city, dividing east and west and jeopardizing the city’s cohesiveness.
The city is spread out and bisected by north-south Highway 503 and east-west Highway 502, neither of which is conducive for pedestrian traffic. Walking, rather than driving, helps foster more social interaction during daily errands.
In contrast, Camas has maintained a distinct small-town feel in spite of quadrupling its population since the 1990s, in part because its downtown is at the center of its growth, Hovee said. That setup fosters interaction between residents as they converge on the downtown for community events, shopping, dining and other activities.
“Our downtown is the central living room for our community,” Camas Mayor Scott Higgins said.
Having only one high school may also help unify city residents, and Higgins worries that the eventual need for a second high school may detract from the town’s cohesion.
La Center also has the advantage of being able to radiate growth from its downtown center, Hovee said.
Ridgefield faces the same challenge as Battle Ground. Its downtown is a satellite of major growth at the Interstate 5 junction, Hovee said.
Though it’s becoming more spread out, Ridgefield Mayor Ron Onslow said the city has maintained small-town values, so far.
“It’s Americana at its best,” Onslow said. “It’s so easy to get to know everybody.”
Ridgefield has been purposeful in its building codes and ordinances to ensure the city’s new developments have a neighborhood feel and a connection to the rest of the city via parks and trail systems, Onslow said.
Washougal has a similar challenge as Battle Ground and Ridgefield but to a lesser degree, Hovee said. Its downtown is not well-connected to the city’s assets, including the waterfront, Hovee said. However, nudged against the Columbia River Gorge and Camas, Washougal doesn’t have a lot of space to grow.
Washougal has tried to mitigate some of that fragmentation by developing its downtown with Washougal Town Square and another 7,500-square-foot commercial building in September. Three years ago, the city linked downtown to the waterfront by building a pedestrian tunnel under state Highway 14.
Those efforts have helped renew interest in downtown, Mayor Sean Guard said. For example, downtown now has breweries to tempt people to the area, Guard said.
Location also can play a role. La Center has stayed relatively small because it’s far away from a freeway. Its population has inched up only slightly since 2004, compared with its neighbor, Ridgefield, located on Interstate 5. That isolation has helped La Center keep its small-town feel but also puts La Center at a disadvantage for garnering new revenues and customers for its casinos and cardrooms.
Revitalizing downtown has been a focus of all of the county’s cities. Holding farmers markets has been one approach. The markets peddle products by residents’ neighbors, bring people into the city’s core and foster interaction.
Controlling growth is another way a small city can keep the identity the community wants, said Kevin Desouza, associate dean for research at the College of Public Programs at Arizona State University and a former associate professor at the University of Washington. That means including people and businesses who share the same ideals and excluding those whose values differ through city ordinances and zoning, Desouza said.
Small cities that want to prevent the community disconnection sometimes caused by urban sprawl should steer big-box and chain retailers to set up shop in the city’s downtown, according to a 1997 report by the National Trust. In that spirit, cities such as Washougal have given businesses incentives, such as fee discounts and fewer parking requirements, to move downtown, Guard said.
Another good way to preserve a sense of community in a growing small town is to collaborate with the public on city planning, Desouza said.
A majority of urban planning efforts in the United States have failed due to lack of collaboration with the public, he said.
Collaboration helps foster a sense of community, but it also allows the community, rather than leaders and experts from outside the town, to direct growth, he said.