Paper mill closures hurt heart of Camas, will impact ‘trickle up’ economy

Camas Mayor Scott Higgins likely summed up what many Camas folks were thinking on Tuesday, after Georgia-Pacific announced plans to shutter the majority of its Camas mill operations next spring, and eliminate more than two-thirds of its local workforce: “We’re losing our identity,” Higgins said. “I mean, we’re the Papermakers!”

It’s smelly and, let’s be honest here, kind of an eyesore, but that mill is a huge part of what makes Camas so special. To people who grew up here, the mill represents security and safety. Former Camas Mayor Nan Henriksen recently talked about her own school days at Camas High nearly 60 years ago. Back then, Henriksen said, Camas graduates could walk down the hill, go straight to the paper mill and get a job that paid a living wage.

The town has diversified since then — in large part due to Henriksen’s foresight in the 1980s — and, as Higgins pointed out this week, is no longer a “one-mill town” economy, so the city of Camas will be OK. But the same cannot be said of the families affected by this closure.

Our hearts go out to the 280 to 300 employees who are facing a very uncertain future next spring. We understand how frightening it is to think about finding another living-wage position in this area. In many cases, these employees and their families will have to look outside Camas-Washougal or even the Portland-Vancouver metro area to find comparable positions.

And that’s where this mill “restructuring” really gets sad for the city of Camas. For all the talk about “trickle down” economics, it is really the “trickle up” economics that power a town like Camas. The wages these mill workers bring in help pay taxes, yes, but they also “trickle up,” helping small businesses in the area when these workers go out to dinner at a local restaurant, buy gas at a local gas station, visit a local dentist, see a movie at a local theater or buy their gifts at a local shop. What’s more, the paper mill employees are known for their generosity, donating to groups like the Camas-Washougal Community Chest, which supports nearly 20 local nonprofits and schools groups and turning out for the many, many community fundraisers that help Camas-Washougal’s less fortunate families.

Losing these families would be detrimental to Camas and nearby Washougal. We sincerely hope many of these employees are able find comparable jobs close by and remain in the Camas community.

This story is just beginning. We will continue to cover this mill “restructuring” over the course of the next few months, as the pulp plant and office paper production equipment goes offline and over the next couple of years, as Georgia-Pacific begins to deconstruct the majority of their Camas operations.

We would love to talk to current and former mill workers about what this closure means to them and to their families. If you are interested in telling us your story, please email Managing Editor Kelly Moyer at kelly.moyer@camaspostrecord.com.

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