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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.

In Our View: Camas offers lessons for communities of all sizes

The Columbian
Published: April 12, 2024, 6:03am

Local residents probably do not need validation from national media, but it’s nice when it arrives. So, congratulations are warranted for Camas, which has been listed by Money.com (formerly Money magazine) as one of the “50 Best Places to Live” in the United States.

Joining large cities (Detroit and Atlanta) as well as out-the-way dots on the map (Bisbee, Ariz., and Eureka Springs, Ark.), Camas earned kudos from the editors: “Today, the tree-lined streets of downtown Camas form a vibrant, walkable community that’s teeming with life. You can find locals dining outdoors at Natalia’s Cafe, an old-school diner famous for its home-cooked breakfast, sipping merlot at Camas Cellars and perusing the ever-changing art at the Attic Gallery. All the while, the city has worked hard to preserve treasured historic buildings that might otherwise have disappeared.”

Recognition for the city of approximately 27,000 residents is well-deserved. But Camas did not get ready for its close-up by accident, and that is perhaps the most compelling part of the city’s 118-year history.

For decades, Camas was dominated by a paper mill that had been founded along the Columbia River in 1883. The mill remains in operation, abutting the west end of what now is downtown. But the operation that once employed tens of thousands of people over the years now has about 150 workers.

By the 1980s, mills throughout the country were shrinking or closing, and the towns they supported were shrinking and dying. But Camas reinvented itself.

“Whether it was a slow death or a very rapid one, the mill was not going to be a Golden Goose,” Nan Henriksen, who was mayor from 1983-92, once told The Columbian. “When I became mayor, the mill provided about 70 percent of our property tax base; now it’s less than 10 percent. Not only did I care about Camas, but I wanted to do whatever I could to save it. Because I saw what was coming.”

During Henriksen’s time as mayor, Camas expanded its boundaries through annexation. Leaders worked to attract new businesses, focusing on a burgeoning high-tech industry, and they diversified the city’s tax base.

The additional land and a growing population — often employed in good-paying jobs — led to widespread construction of high-end housing. Camas’ population, which had declined during the 1970s, has increased fivefold since 1980.

Throughout that time, the Downtown Camas Association has led a revival of the city center. Carrie Schulstad, the association’s director, said, “I think we’re a hidden gem that even people in our local area don’t know about.”

In achieving that status, Camas has polished up lessons for communities of all sizes.

One is that recognizing the need for change and being willing to embrace that change is essential. Cities, like businesses, will either evolve or they will perish.

Another lesson is the need for a diverse mix of manufacturing and white-collar industries. In order to provide resilience against economic downturns, a broad tax base is required. And when local industry thrives and attracts new employees, service industries, locally owned businesses and public amenities are certain to follow.

All of that is easier said than done. Not every city has large swaths of land available for annexation, and expanding the boundaries is no guarantee that businesses with fill the open space.

But when a plan comes together, it can result in one of the best places to live in the country.