Predictions of the Camas paper mill’s demise, apparently, have been greatly exaggerated.
Two years after a restructuring led to the loss of about 300 jobs at the plant, the Camas-Washougal Post-Record reports that Georgia-Pacific has announced a $15 million capital investment in the plant. While we hope that represents a long-term commitment to the facility and the community, Camas is well-positioned to prosper with or without the paper mill.
For decades, the paper mill that sits along the Columbia River near downtown Camas has helped define the town. Founded in 1883, the mill largely was responsible for the creation of the city and even inspired the nickname for the high school’s athletic teams — “Papermakers.” By 1971, the paper mill employed more than 2,500 people and the city had fewer than 6,000 residents.
By the 1980s, Camas was reinventing itself by attracting high-tech industries and extending its boundaries through annexation. Now it has about 24,000 residents, a diverse economy and scores of upscale homes. As former Mayor Nan Henricksen told The Columbian last year: “Whether it was a slow death or a very rapid one, the mill was not going to be a Golden Goose. When I became mayor, the mill provided about 70 percent of our property tax base; now it’s less than 10 percent.”
Despite that transformation, an investment in the mill is a good sign and a tribute to the 150 employees who still work there. Officials for Georgia-Pacific, a subsidiary of Koch Industries, said the investment is designed to make the remaining paper towel line more competitive and the plant more environmentally sustainable. Shawn Wood, vice president and manager of the mill, said: “The approval of these key projects is great news and I want to thank our 150 team members for their hard work and dedication this past year.”
Combined with the reopening of a mill in West Linn, Ore., the news is a promising signal for the paper industry that previously was essential to this timber-heavy part of the country. The Willamette Falls Paper Company resumed operations last fall following an investment from Clark County-based Ken Peterson, two years after the plant abruptly shut down.
President Donald Trump has made the return of manufacturing jobs a key platform of his election campaign — as he did in 2016. But efforts by the administration — including a prolonged trade war — have been met with mixed success. According to the Federal Reserve, manufacturing production and jobs experienced a boost during the first two years of the Trump presidency, but declined throughout 2019. Research shows that a high percentage of new manufacturing jobs are nonunion and that employees earn less than the median national wage.
“Trump told people that he understood their pain, promising to do something different about it,” said Robert Scott, director of Trade and Manufacturing Policy Research at the Economic Policy Institute. “He has done something different, but it hasn’t worked.”
National trends, however, mean little to people — such as the workers in Camas — who are simply trying to put food on their tables. Bill Spring, vice president of the Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers, told the Post-Record: “Any kind of improvements they’re making to the facility is encouraging. It’s an encouraging sign that (Georgia-Pacific is) planning to continue operations there.”
It is, indeed, encouraging. And it is an indication that the demise of the paper mill might have been overstated.