‘Spring into History’ on First Friday
What: The family friendly First Friday event will offer activities that help explore Camas history. Highlights will include origami demonstrations and displays and kids’ crafts to celebrate the paper mill and Japanese sister cities Hosoe-cho and Taki-cho. There will also be a local history game and Georgia-Pacific toilet paper toss.
When: 5 to 8 p.m., in downtown Camas.
“Downtown Camas: The Place to Be.”
This simple catchphrase emerged 15 years ago, with the formation of the Downtown Vision Coalition. The group’s direction and focus were captured in six simple words.
The effort was led by the city of Camas, and included contributions from small business owners and employees, and other local leaders and active citizens. They sought to make downtown Camas a more appealing place to shop, conduct business and live.
Today, many would agree that is exactly what this historic area has come to represent to the city’s 22,000 residents.
“Downtown Camas feels different because of the people and the connections that can be made here,” said Carrie Schulstad, who has been the executive director of the Downtown Camas Association since January 2014. “Locals enjoy coming together in a place they can be proud of. They like to see neighbors and friends. Visitors enjoy seeing a town that is taken care of, that has beauty and historic elements, and where they are greeted with small town service and kindness.”
Aesthetic highlights of downtown Camas include planter beds, benches, hanging flower baskets, acorn street lights, a water feature and bronze sculptures that together create a charming environment that celebrates what the city has to offer.
Popular monthly themed First Friday events are collaborations between the DCA, a member of the state’s Main Street program, and merchants. Attendance at festivals, fairs, a car show and other special events continues to grow, year after year. Entrepreneurs now hone in on downtown Camas when seeking out potential locations for their businesses.
Kay Thornton was working as a real estate agent when she joined the DVC Board at the time of its formation in 2001. The longtime resident was actively involved in those revitalization efforts.
“We worked so hard,” she remembered. “All of those events are a direct result of the downtown associations and their hard work.”
New projects on the horizon have the potential to build on the existing economic vitality. City leaders announced in January that plans are in the works to build two new commercial developments — one on Northeast Third Avenue and the other on Northeast Sixth Avenue.
By most accounts, the downtown that exists today represents a shopping district success story.
What is not commonly known, however, is that the vision for it was actually first put into place decades ago when the city was home to a mere 6,000 people.
“We knew we had a problem”
In the early 1960s, downtown Camas businesses were struggling, parking was an issue, and the threat of larger shopping centers in Clark County taking business from small downtown centers loomed on the horizon. The look of the area hadn’t changed much in three decades, and downtown was slowly deteriorating.
Forward-thinking business owners decided it was time to take action.
Led by Glenn Farrell, operator of his family’s business the Farrell and Eddy department store, Harold Zimmerman, owner and publisher of the Camas-Washougal Post-Record newspaper, and Tom Willams, a dentist, in 1962 the Chamber of Commerce formed a Commercial Problems Committee.
“We knew we had to do something — but what? What could we do to Northeast Fourth Avenue — our downtown — to make it more attractive, to retain our old customers and bring in new,” reads a 1966 document outlining the situation.
Thornton began working in downtown Camas in the early 1960s, when she got a job at Walter’s Studio on Birch Street.
“Camas was a typical 1960s city when the first revitalization happened,” she recalled. “It was not particularly pretty. The smell from the mill was still stinky and nasty, back then.”
Feedback from a community survey indicated that the public deemed as top priorities the removal of parking meters, creation of off-street parking and improvement to buildings’ exteriors.
“The answers made the Commercial Problems Committee begin to consider a whole new approach to the downtown shopping problem,” the 1966 document reads. “What the people were asking for was a huge shopping center right in the middle of the city.”
Embarking on Operation 4-Sight
The group embarked on Operation 4-Sight, a revitalization process that mirrored one that had taken place in Grand Junction, Colorado.
Current Camas resident Randy Curtis began researching Operation 4-Sight several months ago. He spent hours pouring over the archives of the Camas-Washougal Post-Record, and visiting the Two Rivers Heritage Museum and the Camas Public Library. What he found surprised him.
“In the 1960s people were doing this kind of thing, but there wasn’t a lot being written about the process yet. This is just a classic in terms of how you take an idea and you sell it, and the ups and downs that go along with it.”
The 1966 plan designated four phases: Create a downtown shopping park; build off-street parking; beautify buildings; and install all-weather marquees.
The pedestrian friendly shopping park would feature wide sidewalks; tree shrub and flower plantings; ornamental fountains; and metal canopies with benches.
“First, we had to sell the city officials of Camas on the scheme,” the 1966 document states. “We had to convince them that the business district — and the whole city — would benefit by modernization of four blocks of downtown Camas. We needed their help on Operation 4-Sight if it were to get off the ground.”
The city’s elected leaders, including Mayor W.T. Bill Sampson, bought in to the idea as “a modern approach to an old problem.” It was then presented to the public.
“In March 1965, city forces brought in concrete blocks, dirt, sawdust and rocks to build a realistic model of the proposed shopping park on Northeast Fourth Avenue between Birch and Cedar streets,” the 1966 document states.
City leaders estimated that by a margin of 3 to 1, citizens who provided feedback about the mock-up supported the concept.
The effort, however, did have its detractors. Some didn’t want to see the street widths reduced to make room for larger sidewalks, others scoffed at the idea of planting trees down each side of Northeast Fourth Avenue.
“When the architect began drawing pictures and sketches the plan seemed too far out, too extreme,” reads a May 1967 Post-Record editorial by Zimmerman. “Even with modifications, it seemed hardly logical for a modest little city.”
Nan Henriksen, a lifelong Camas resident, served as Camas mayor from 1983 to 1992, and is credited with diversifying the mill town by enticing high tech industries like Sharp and WaferTech to the city during her tenure. She can empathize with the pressure these innovative business and city leaders must have felt and the criticism they received. She described them as tenacious.
“I think it’s particularly brave of business owners [like Zimmerman and Farrell] to say, ‘we want to create a more attractive environment. We want to stand up and say, we are willing to give up some parking spaces to make downtown Camas more attractive.’ That takes some foresight.”
First estimates pegged the cost of the project at $59,000. A Local Improvement District involving the 23 impacted property owners was formed to cover 80 percent of the cost. The remainder would come from the city.
An unwelcome surprise
Just when the project seemed to be on track, the opening of the construction bids revealed an unwelcome surprise. The low bid was $133,000.
“For a project with only $59,000 available for immediate financing, the Camas downtown shopping park looked as dead as the proverbial dodo,” the 1966 document lamented.
In response, the scale of the project was trimmed to meet a $68,000 budget, and a federal grant for $20,250 was later secured to provide additional funding.
Vancouver-based Larry Pratka Construction Company began its work in October 1966. Trees, flowers and bushes were planted. Thirty-four ornamental lights were erected to replace mercury vapor lights. Four canopies, also referred to as “mushroom umbrellas,” and 25 redwood benches were installed.
At the time, it was reported that there were 700 cities in the United States were in the process of rejuvenating and beautifying downtown shopping areas. Camas was one of the first in the Northwest to begin construction.
Time to celebrate
To mark the completion of the shopping park, as well as that of a new City Hall building and library expansion, a three-day event was planned in May 1967.
“Praise continues to come for the Camas downtown shopping park,” read a Post-Record editorial by Zimmerman. “Detractors have become fewer and less vocal, as the shrubbery grows and the park nears its final form.”
50 years later
Schulstad and Curtis see a direct connection between the current momentum being generated with the proposed commercial projects on Third and Sixth avenues, the DVC’s revitalization efforts that started in 2000, and the vision that began with Operation 4-Sight 50 years ago.
“It didn’t just happen. It isn’t just one person,” Schulstad explained about the road to today’s successful downtown core. “It’s a long history of people repeatedly telling the same story — this is what we want our town to be, this is what we want our town to look like, these are the amenities we want it to have — over and over again until it’s part of the fabric of the culture.”
Ready for the future
The next chapter for downtown Camas could include two new developments that combine residential and commercial uses.
Hoviss Development Group has gone through the city’s pre-application process as it plans to build a three-story mixed-use development at the corner of Northeast Sixth Avenue and Birch Street. According to Clark County property records, the 5,000 square foot lot is owned by HDA6TH, LLC.
The main floor of the project would feature 4,700 square feet of retail and restaurant and space, with garage style doors that open to outdoor seating, in addition to a private back patio.
The second floor would have nine private office suites, a full kitchen and shared conference room with private parking and skybridge access.
The third floor would offer four residential lofts, ranging in size from 1,200 to 1,600 square feet, with private decks and secure access.
The proposed project at 414 N.E. Third Avenue, calls for construction of a three-story commercial/apartment development with retail uses including a bank on the main level, and apartments on the top two floors.
The 25,000 square foot property, owned by Riverview Community Bank, is currently occupied by a business that sells used cars.
Camas Planning Manager Robert Maul said Monday that he expects the building permit application for the Hoviss project to be submitted within the next two to three weeks, while progression of the Riverview Community Bank project is more likely dependent on the property owners securing tenants for the development.
Community Development Director Phil Bourquin indicated during the Camas City Council planning conference at the end of January that he believes the two projects are a hint of what’s to come for the downtown core.
“I have so much confidence in this, with all of the work and all of the energy that is going on around this, that you are going to see more in the downtown,” he said. “More things that are driving economic development, more retail, more restaurants, more living in the urban core.”
Schulstad and Curtis feel that same kind of excitement, and recognize the impact of the efforts that began decades ago.
“What we are right now seeing on Third and Sixth — the new buildings — those concepts are exactly what was covered [in Operation 4-Sight], in more detail,” Curtis said. “They go back to ideas that are 50 years old. And it will continue for a long time.”