CAMAS — Downtown Camas was an almost unrecognizable place a quarter-century ago.
Longtime residents remember a time when the mill was far more prosperous, employing thousands of workers and churning out loads of paper at all hours of the day. And when the workday was done, the crews flocked from the factory floor to comfortable bar stools in several seedy downtown taverns.
Back then, in a quick drive down Fourth Avenue, the heart of the city’s quaint historic district, it was normal to see the bars packed with mill workers fresh off their graveyard shifts grabbing some beers at 8:30 a.m. Then, when 2 a.m. rolled around, it wasn’t unusual for a drunken bar fight to spill out into the streets, Mayor Scott Higgins remembers.
“I have all these memories of a very different-looking downtown Camas,” Higgins said. “The mill folks love still being down here. But there is no doubt that as the demographics changed and we became more of a white-collar community, that was reflected down here.”
In the last 26 years, downtown Camas has undergone a remarkable transformation as the city’s economy has evolved from a blue-collar mill town to a thriving white-collar tech industry hub. The shift is mirrored in the city’s downtown nightlife, which eventually moved on from the unruly dive bars to welcome several upscale establishments instead.
The change is a result of a long-standing concerted effort between the city, business owners and an ardent Main Street Program — the Downtown Camas Association — to reinvent the downtown core. Today, downtown Camas’ nightlife is actually more robust than ever, with a number of new bars, restaurants and expansions coming up in the past year, and city officials only expect the trend to continue.
In 1989, downtown Camas was home to five bars, said Phil Bourquin, a longtime resident and the city’s community development director. Trying to keep a buffer between the sketchy bar scene and local schools and churches, in the late 1980s, the city put a limit on how many bars could be in downtown.
“That was part of the impetus for putting in those limitations, trying to make the downtown something other than just drinking establishments,” Bourquin said. “The irony of it is that today we actually have nine (places that serve alcohol).”
A few years ago, as a growing downtown Camas began to butt up against that limit, the city finally scrapped the regulation, opening the door for more bars than ever to come to town. Now, the city’s embracing that new identity, with a vision of sprucing up Third Avenue into a strip of mixed commercial-residential development designed to reflect Fourth Avenue, including its bar and restaurant scene.
Higgins admits the experiment has been risky.
“It does make you nervous,” he said. “You’re like, ‘Are we going to become this rundown college-like town, where you have all these issues?’ But it has not been the case, and in fact, it is quite the opposite.”
Located across the street from the mill at the end of Fourth Avenue, the Mill Tavern and the Adams Street Bar & Grill are the only remaining holdovers from that late-’80s bar scene. Higgins and other community leaders say the two places are continuing to adapt to mesh with the changing atmosphere and clientele.
The space where the Journey Community Church stands today was previously home to two bars: Dodge City and the Columbia River Bar & Grill. Carrie Schulstad, the executive director of the Downtown Camas Association, remembers it as a scary spot before it became a church.
“There were lots of police calls on Camas Days,” she said. “You wouldn’t bring your kids down there at night, because people were so drunk and rowdy.”
Today, Schulstad organizes themed First Fridays each month with kid-friendly events drawing families to downtown. The events have especially taken off in the past three years, as the economy has improved, giving downtown businesses a healthy shot in the arm.
When new bars began popping up around downtown, Kevin Taylor, the owner of the Birch Street Uptown Lounge, was concerned about the increasing competition. But the local business owners in downtown Camas support each other, he said, and more foot traffic for one bar means more business for everyone else.
“I worried a little about having some customer drop-off,” Taylor said. “We had none of that. We saw an increase in business instantly and have ever since.”
Taylor opened his bar nearly five years ago. This spring, he’s in the process of expanding to nearly double his seating capacity.
Business has never been so good, he said. He recently experienced another boost after Nuestra Mesa and Feast at 316 — two upscale restaurants — opened their own bars just down the street.
“The nightlife in Camas was different before, and of course the demographics in Camas have changed,” Taylor said. “You need to match the community.”