Time to shift our ‘small town’ thinking in Camas

The phrase “small town” gets thrown around a lot in this increasingly urban neck of the Southwest Washington woods.

The theme of the Aug. 3 First Friday celebration in downtown Camas, for instance, is “Small Town Summer Fun — Downtown Goes Flamingo!” and media coverage of the annual Camas Days festival, which attracts thousands to the city’s historic downtown streets each July, nearly always includes descriptors like “tree-lined streets” and “small-town charm.”

Most people use the phrase as a compliment.

To them, calling Camas a small town means the place is friendly and welcoming — the type of town where people still say “hi” to each other.

Unfortunately, some people use the phrase as more of a weapon, as a way of letting newcomers or outsiders know they don’t quite fit in or, sometimes, that they are acting outside the very narrow definition of what is acceptable in a “small town” and will be shunned if they keep it up.

We experienced this recently at The Post-Record, after letting local community leaders know we had implemented a security change. Instead of allowing people to come into our office and walk around the reception area, often marching straight up to reporters while they’re working, we now ask visitors to stop at our reception desk, wait for an employee to greet them and to, hopefully, have an appointment before asking to meet with a reporter.

This policy isn’t exactly unique. In fact, it’s unlikely any business manager would be happy having members of the public waltz into their office, blow past the front desk and head straight toward their employees’ work spaces.

We didn’t think the change was even remotely provocative. And after the recent slaying of five community journalists at a small Maryland newspaper office, we certainly didn’t expect anyone to question why we were thinking about the safety of our staff members.

But when we informed one community leader of our new safety policies, their short email response was that it was “not very small town” of us.

As disheartening as that message was, it got us thinking: What does it mean to be “small town,” and does Camas even qualify anymore?

The first part of that question is subjective. To those who grew up in actual small towns with populations hovering around 5,000 and no large city in sight, the phrase might mean something totally different than it does to someone who has grown up in a place like Camas, which shares a border with the state’s fourth-largest city and where Portland, one of the biggest, fastest-growing places on the West Coast, is literally just a morning commute away.

The second half of that question, however, is more straightforward: Though many people don’t yet realize it, Camas is no longer a “small town.” With nearly 24,000 people, Camas is among the top 25 percent biggest Washington towns.

If the city continues to grow at its current rate, Camas will tip over the 25,000 population mark in just a couple years. According to the most recent United States Census data, 92 percent of towns in this country have fewer than 25,000 people. This means Camas is on the verge of being in the top 8 percent of the nation’s largest towns.

Does this mean Camas can no longer claim “small town charm”? Of course not. But it does mean people who are in charge of this city’s politics, nonprofits, school districts and business organizations must start to realize Camas has shifted from a tiny mill town far removed from “the big city,” to a thriving urban area home to thousands of people who might not have deep “papermaker” roots, but who will still fight fiercely to protect the tree-lined streets, small businesses, natural areas and strong schools that make Camas such a special place to live and work.

Unlike many small mill towns scattered across the country, Camas has not shriveled up and morphed into a one-Walmart town with an empty downtown core. Small businesses and restaurants thrive here. Housing prices in Camas are some of the highest in the entire Portland-Vancouver metro area. The city is still growing, still evolving.

And the town’s leaders need to evolve with it. They must start seeing Camas for what it is today — a thriving urban center where people still want to feel the close connections of a much smaller community — instead of dwelling on what Camas used to be.