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Oct. 27, 2021

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Camas: From mill town to model city

Amid evolution, growth, leaders try to retain culture that old, new residents cherish

By , Columbian Business Reporter
Published:
6 Photos
An aerial view of the Georgia-Pacific paper mill in Camas on March 26. "When I graduated from high school, those in my class who hiked down the hill were basically guaranteed a good paying job from Crown Zellerbach," said former Camas Mayor Nan Henriksen, who helped diversify the city's economy away from reliance on the mill in the 1980s.
An aerial view of the Georgia-Pacific paper mill in Camas on March 26. "When I graduated from high school, those in my class who hiked down the hill were basically guaranteed a good paying job from Crown Zellerbach," said former Camas Mayor Nan Henriksen, who helped diversify the city's economy away from reliance on the mill in the 1980s. (Natalie Behring /Columbian files) Photo Gallery

CAMAS — A verdant pasture is speckled with cows of all colors feeding under a clear November sky. This used to be a quiet neighborhood, one would imagine. It used to be outside city limits, to be sure.

There are a lot of things Camas used to be.

Across the street from the small farm sits a new 80,000-square-foot development, home to an indoor shooting range and office space. There are plans for two more commercial buildings on the site, where a parking lot has supplanted the soil.

There are a lot of things Camas is going to be.

In its 109-year existence, Camas has gone from mill town to model city, a budding cosmopolis on the edge of a metropolis. It’s different. For some that means better, and for others that means worse. But it’s still the Home of the Papermakers.

“Camas is a city of 20,000 that thinks it’s a city of 4,000,” Mayor Scott Higgins said. “Bottom line, you have to believe in keeping your culture and you work to keep it.”

On a drive through the city a few weeks ago, residential development was surging on in the expansive hills where most of Camas now lives. Higgins pointed out properties that are ready to “turn,” or give in to the forces of development surrounding them. The family farms are falling to make way for new families.

The population of Camas doubled between 1990 and 2000, and it could rise to 25,000 within the next few years.

“The growth isn’t really an option — that’s what happens because we’re successful,” Higgins said. “The choice is how we handle it. You either embrace it and plan and make it everything you love, or you start to make it not what it was.”

Though city officials have planned for growth and have raced to keep infrastructure current, there is some dissonance felt while driving the narrow, two-lane Highway 500 as it runs alongside neighborhoods filling up with $350,000 homes.

More improvements are coming — they’ve already arrived on nearby streets where the tree-lined medians and sidewalks abruptly meet more rural-seeming stretches of road.

“Growth is going to self-regulate,” Higgins said.

Seeing the trees

On the north side of Lacamas Lake, Higgins points out a beautiful stretch of recently logged land cleared for the 297-lot CJ Dens development. The timbers are still freshly stacked near the yellow machines aglow in the late autumn sun. They’re the other casualties of continued development, and people perk up at the sound of the saw.

“I think there needs to be a lot more thought going into these changes,” wrote Emilia Brasier in response to a Columbian article on Camas’ growth this summer. “We are essentially creating a new face for our town and we need to do it much more thoughtfully than I feel it currently is. I would like to see Camas maintain its appeal due to feeling like it is full of nature. These few development options are going to destroy that feeling and there is really no going back.”

But not all of the forests will be felled amid the march of Lennar homes and cul-de-sacs. Green spaces, especially around the lakes, are a permanent priority for the city, at least under its current management.

“You’ve got these great forests that are going to remain in the city forever,” Higgins said, pointing to the lakes, the county park and the potential to dead-end Southeast Leadbetter Road to create a new trail.

The green spaces are an obvious draw for the town, much like the neighborhoods, that sense of community and the schools. Oh, the schools — aren’t they great?

“Camas schools are the overwhelming choice as the city’s greatest strength, followed by trails, parks, open spaces and nature,” according to the results of a comprehensive planning survey last year.

Camas crossroads Camas has long had its eyes on the future, and it has been rewarded with economic success in many corners. The future is now. But the city with its own smartphone app isn't about to stop growing and changing. • In 2014, there were 11 ongoing infrastructure projects, six commercial projects and 15 residential developments underway. • The Green Mountain subdivision, a 283-acre commercial and residential project that will replace a golf course, is in its final approval stages and will be discussed at a city council meeting Dec. 21. • A vote on a $120 million school bond issue will take place in February. It would pay for a new school on the Camas High School campus. A new comprehensive high school could still be up to a decade away. • Some looking to spread the charm of downtown's Fourth Avenue have been "kicking over tires" on Third Avenue, City Administrator Pete Capell said, though no plans are in motion just yet. • Affordable housing and the preservation of green space are likely to be priorities for city leaders for years to come. • The city's comprehensive planning is coming to a close this summer, though there is still time to get involved. Find out more at Camas2035.com. — Brooks Johnson

Camas High School ranks 23rd out of the state’s 458 high schools, according to U.S. News & World Report. Other than the Vancouver School of Arts and Academics, it’s the only high school in Southwest Washington to even get a ranking.

And the Papermakers are pretty good at sports, too, you know.

Yet “Home of the Papermakers” could be a bit of a misnomer for Camas these days. Aside from the high school mascot, papermakers are a minority of the city’s working population anymore.

So what is the town’s identity today? Wafermakers? Investment bundlers? Subdividers?

“When they built the new high school, there was a big discussion in the community — do we change the name of the school?” Higgins said. “The overwhelming reaction was no, that’s our history. That’s our heritage, and we’re tied to that. And I suspect that to always be the case.”

It may seem a tough sell — embracing a blue-collar image for an increasingly white-collar town — but the homegrown mayor with the Apple Watch on his wrist is steadfast in maintaining the city’s small-town character.

That would seem to follow a pattern set by one of his predecessors.

“That was one of our biggest concerns — how do you grow and still integrate the old and the new?” said former Mayor Nan Henriksen. “That’s not an easy thing.”

Henriksen and the city council of the 1980s saw the need to open up the town to new industrial development, and they set aside the land to make it happen. The Georgia-Pacific (then Crown Zellerbach) mill was the majority economic player in Camas, but today it employs less than a quarter of the workers that it previously did.

Still, not everyone was onboard with changes then, just as Camas continues to grow in new and occasionally unpopular directions today.

“Changing directions is a very difficult thing for people,” Henriksen said. “Back when it was happening, it was not popular with a good number of some of our best citizens.”

But then came Sharp, Underwriters Laboratories, WaferTech and Fisher Investments. Then came the revitalization of downtown. And the people never stopped moving to town. It has taken all this time to create new Camas, but many would argue it has been worth the wait.

“I’m pretty proud the direction we set 25 years ago has been fulfilled,” Henriksen said. “We knew we couldn’t survive the way we were. … I’m just delighted we still have a wonderful quality of life and a community where people love to live and are proud of being Camasonians.”

Fairways and new ways

On the north edge of town, a man misses a putt at the Green Mountain Golf Course. He doesn’t have much time to perfect his short game — in the near future he’ll be standing in someone’s kitchen. Down goes the golf course, up come the homes.

It wasn’t so much the loyal Green Mountain golfers who opposed the impending development, Higgins said, as the rural neighbors concerned about the changes in their way of life.

“Most of them had assumed it would always be open space,” Higgins said, but plans for the Green Mountain development were in place before most of those neighbors moved in.

Those who moved here this century have a lot they could take for granted. Those who knew Camas in the 20th century saw the work it took to get to this point, and how much more will probably change if Camas is to remain successful.

“Having grown up in this town … to see where we are now, back then? No,” said Brent Erickson, 57, the executive director of the Camas-Washougal Chamber of Commerce.

If soaring residential development is a gripe of citizens, the lack of retail development is a problem for city officials.

Along 192nd Avenue are plenty of Camas addresses, but that retail corridor is entirely in Vancouver city limits — Costco and all.

Where city leaders had been wise to get industrial land set aside all those years ago, they failed to beat Vancouver to the retail punch. That sends a good deal of Camas sales taxes to the city’s western neighbor.

No matter. There are plenty of shops downtown — a phrase that just a few years ago may have been met with laughs.

“In 2005, many buildings were vacant with boarded-up windows,” said Carrie Schulstad, director of the Downtown Camas Association. “Now we only have one vacancy in all of downtown. We are no longer seen just as a mill town — we are also seen as a charming and vibrant shopping and dining destination.”

Faces of the future

Well after sunset on Dec. 4, more than a thousand people gathered on Fourth Avenue for the 10th annual Christmas tree lighting. Construction was on hold in the hills. Comprehensive planning had paused for the evening. A vote on a new high school was months away yet.

Everywhere you looked, there were young professionals and their young children.

A lot of people are going to grow up in Camas.

“That’s why we moved here from Salmon Creek,” said Jenny Vrtiska, who came with her husband and their two young girls to the packed Hometown Holidays celebration. “It’s exciting and lively.”

Under the bubble machines emulating snow above the Liberty Theater, one Camasonian said a new comprehensive high school — a possibility in the next decade — could divide the otherwise unified sense of Camas pride.

A Vancouver resident sipping coffee near a tent full of singing children said he could tell Camas’ leaders care about fostering a sense of community that will hopefully never splinter.

And a mother of three says it’s what everyone says about Camas that brought her here 11 years ago.

“We like the small-town feel, the schools,” said Jennifer Adamske, 39.

As her kids run in circles at the corner of Fourth and Cedar, the chatter of a thousand-strong Papermakers army fills the city under the shadow of the mill at the end of the street. Adamske joins the rest of the crowd in smiling at the scene.

“I don’t think you can re-create this anywhere else, she said.

Columbian Business Reporter
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