In 2009, downtown Camas was like many many small town epicenters across the country — dotted with vacant storefronts, suffering from a lack of customers and struggling to find its way in the midst of a major economic recession.
Today, that same downtown is a shining example of what can happen when people decide to reinvest in their own Main Street. In less than a decade, Camas’ historic downtown has gone from having a 42-percent vacancy rate in its commercial buildings to having a waitlist of entrepreneurs hoping to move into the active downtown core. Private investors have spent more than $7 million to renovate downtown Camas buildings over the past seven years, and the 2015 construction of a building at Everett Street and Fifth Avenue was the first new build in downtown Camas in nearly 30 years.
The Downtown Camas Association presented these statistics and more to the Camas City Council this week, and credited the state’s Main Street B&O Tax Incentive Program for kickstarting and maintaining downtown Camas’ upward trajectory.
The tax incentive program allows business owners to reinvest in their communities’ Main Streets, giving a Business and Occupation tax credit worth 75 percent of their contribution to local downtown revitalization efforts. The Downtown Camas Association became part of the program in 2010 and has been reaping the benefits of the local reinvestment dollars ever since.
“Our Main Street revitalization efforts, many with B&O dollars, have changed the face and feel of our downtown,” the association stated in literature provided to the Camas City Council. “We stay true to our mill town roots, but are providing more amenities, bringing more people to town and in turn, growing our downtown economy.”
Today, Camas’ Main Street is stronger than ever. Not only does the downtown hub provide residents with a wealth of shopping, dining and service options, but it fosters a sense of community with the nationally recognized farmer’s market that sets up shop every Wednesday afternoon and evening June through October and 20 annual events that draw locals and tourists alike to the heart of Camas.
Having strong downtowns filled with locally owned businesses gives a town its own identity. People who come to downtown Camas know they’ll find a family friendly place that promotes the arts, emphasizes good health, offers unique retail and has more than a few amazing places to grab a drink or a bite to eat. More than just giving Camas an identity, though, the downtown props up the local economy. In the U.S., it is estimated that small businesses create more than 60 percent of the jobs. What’s more, dollars spent at locally owned small businesses stay in the community — an economics study out of Grand Rapids, Michigan, shows that $68 of every $100 spent at local small businesses stays in the local economy versus only $43 spent at big businesses. Another study, from the Seattle Good Business Network, shows that small business leaders give back more often, too, donating 250 percent more money than larger businesses to nonprofits and community causes.
But maintaining a vibrant downtown is no small task — just ask anyone who grew up in a similarly sized town in the Midwest or the East Coast, where downtowns in cities the size of Camas have, more times than not, gone the way of the dinosaur, ruined by city leaders who tore down historic buildings in favor of anonymous drive-thrus and bland big-box stores.
So, if you are one of those who have been talking about “making America great again” over the past year, we would urge you to live those words through action. Remember, as you go about your days, that small efforts in your own community often are the things that matter most. Instead of shopping online or at a big-box store in Vancouver, take your dollars downtown and support local businesses. Attend those 20 community events and strike up a conversation with your neighbors. Instead of buying food that has been sitting in a container or on a truck for a week, shop at the weekly farmer’s market and get a direct line on the freshest, tastiest food available in Southwest Washington. Volunteer your free time to keep the downtown area looking its best. Browse the art at the local galleries, and not just on First Fridays. And when you want to see a movie, head to the theater downtown instead of clicking on Netflix.
It is these little, everyday actions that will help “make America great again” and keep Camas great right now.