Supporting Camas in quest for ‘small business revolution’ win helps whole community

The photos from the “big reveal” inside the Downtown Camas Association (DCA) office Tuesday morning only go so far in capturing the pure excitement running through the room as executives from the web series “Small Business Revolution — Main Street,” which runs on Hulu, presented a live announcement of the top 10 cities in the running for the grand prize — a $500,000 downtown business makeover and a whole season in which to promote Camas and its small business community.

As the DCA folks screamed and jumped up and down, this sometimes jaded newspaper editor got a bit caught up in the moment. I couldn’t help laughing along as Carrie Schulstad, the DCA’s executive director, did a victory lap around the office and a nearby real estate broker, who had been keeping cool in the back of the room, wiped away a tear of happiness.

Of course, Camas hasn’t actually won the competition, but making the top 10 out of a pool of more than 12,000 communities nominated for the web series’ fourth season is a significant victory. And the DCA supporters are right to celebrate the honor.

Bringing attention to small, independent businesses in towns like Camas and Washougal is critical, especially in the wake of the Great Recession. Since 2010, this country has witnessed what is now known as “the retail apocalypse,” with the closing of more than 12,000 brick-and-mortar retail shops and the downsizing of retail giants like Sears, Kmart and Macy’s.

Several factors contributed to this ongoing “apocalypse,” including the rise of online shopping — Amazon’s sales in North America quintupled during that same period, going from $16 billion in 2010 to $80 billion in 2017 — and consumers’ recent tendency to spend their disposable incomes on restaurant meals and travel instead of home goods or clothing.

Shoppers don’t seem to think twice about what their online shopping habits mean to the future of the towns they love and call home. I had a conversation with a Portland business owner last week and he told me customers frequently come into his store to feel products and see them in person, then tell him they’re “just going to buy it online.” He said pricing isn’t even the issue anymore. His store can offer competitive prices. Sometimes, people just want to have the product delivered to their door instead of taking it with them from the shop. Others want the ability to return something without making another trip to the store.

On an individual basis, our society’s newfound introversion might not seem like a big deal, but the long-term implications are scary. Imagine living in a Camas devoid of the thriving downtown business community. No more First Friday celebrations. No more strolling through interesting little indy shops with out-of-town relatives. No more small business leaders banding together inside the DCA’s downtown office to come up with creative ways of making Camas more attractive to its residents and visitors.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but when I plan a vacation to a city or town, one of the things that draws me in is the variety of unique restaurants and shops, not the ability to sit in my hotel room, shopping online.

Supporting your local business community can make or break your town. In an article for strongtowns.org published on July 31, Quint Studer, author of “Building a Vibrant Community: How Citizen-Powered Change is Reshaping America,” says one of the best ways for towns like Camas and Washougal to grow, revitalize and retain young people is to “deliberately nurture and grow their small business communities.”

“A strong small business presence — especially one that thrives in the context of a busy, livable, walkable downtown — is what gives a community its character,” Studer states. “It creates that sense of ‘place’ that attracts tourists, young people … and yes, bigger businesses and other investors who drive further growth.”

Struder makes the argument that, as large corporations take over “pillar institutions” like banks, hospitals and newspapers, which used to employ local workers who were deeply invested in the community, small business owners have a chance to step into that void.

If any small business owners are poised to take over as “town pillars,” the entrepreneurs that comprise the downtown Camas community are. That much was apparent Tuesday morning at the DCA office.

If you want to get caught up in the excitement of the “Small Business Revolution” competition, come to a meet-and-greet with show executives from 6 to 7:30 p.m., Jan. 2, at Grains of Wrath, and help show why downtown Camas deserves widespread recognition.

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