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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Jayne: Just ask Nan: It’s evolve or die

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Page Editor
Published: September 22, 2019, 6:02am

She is 77 now, having spent a lifetime putting her imprint on Camas and Clark County and, in a small way, all of Western Washington. And while Nan Henriksen could rest on her laurels, that would be a waste of time; there is too much that needs to be done.

“I’m president this year of the Rotary Club of Camas-Washougal,” she notes as we sit down at a coffee shop in the city where she has spent her life, aside from college years at the University of Washington. “So that’s a lot of work.”

So is a recitation of Henriksen’s public life. She was mayor of Camas for about a decade. A member of the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board. Chair of the freeholders committee that created the county charter adopted by voters in 2014. And while any of those achievements could fill an interview, we are here to talk about the Camas miracle.

Because during the 1980s, Camas reinvented itself. It expanded through annexation; it diversified its tax base; it attracted new industry and looked to the future. After decades of being dominated by the paper mill that has sat along the Columbia River since 1883, the city faced a choice — evolve or die.

“Whether it was a slow death or a very rapid one, the mill was not going to be a Golden Goose,” Henriksen recalled. “When I became mayor, the mill provided about 70 percent of our property tax base; now it’s less than 10 percent.”

Some four decades ago, mills throughout the country were shrinking or closing, and the cities that revolved around them were shrinking or dying. Those who embraced reality found a way to thrive; the rest withered. “Not only did I care about Camas, but I wanted to do whatever I could to save it,” Henriksen said. “Because I saw what was coming.”

Not everybody could see as clearly as this mother of three who owned a drug store and Hallmark shop. “Those who had lived in Camas for many years, they were not thrilled about our vision. There were longtime residents who didn’t share my vision who wouldn’t do business at our store.”

But Camas expanded, built an industrial park that was ideal for nascent high-tech industries, attracted companies such as Sharp and Underwriters Laboratories, and saw the development of high-end housing. What was a city of about 6,000 when Henriksen became mayor is now a jewel of about 23,000 with a robust tax base.

The story has been told often. And while Henriksen does not deserve all the credit, she effectively articulates the vision that not only allowed Camas to survive but to thrive.

All of which seems relevant these days. All of which makes for a story worth retelling as too many Americans choose to cling to the past. All of which deserves consideration as this country figures out what to do about climate change. “You mean like facing reality and making a plan?” Henriksen asks.

Indeed. Because those who would rather ignore climate change say dealing with it will undermine the economy, or hurt longstanding industries, or present too large of a problem. Which really is a way of underselling this nation. Making America great again doesn’t mean clinging to the past; it means having a vision for tackling urgent problems. The choice is the same as the one faced by Camas 35 years ago — evolve or die.

According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 100,000 Americans already are employed in the wind energy industry, compared with 52,000 in the coal industry. According to Forbes, the solar energy industry employs more people than oil, coal and gas combined. According to common sense, denying the economic potential of renewable energy is to ignore reality. As Jay Inslee has said: “It’s about igniting core convictions of Americans, that we can be innovators rather than anchoring ourselves to old industries.”

That has a tangential relationship to what has happened in Camas, a city remade with clear vision and sharp dedication. And it has a relationship to the economic potential of embracing change. Just ask Nan Henriksen.