In Camas, it was a basketball, not a straw, that broke the camel’s back — rather, it was a lot of basketballs.
The 3-on-3 basketball tournament known as “Hoops 360” took over Camas’ historic downtown for an entire weekend in mid-August. Music was played, baskets were swished and, most importantly, streets and parking spaces were closed off.
Participants and visitors may have had a great time at the inaugural event, but many downtown Camas business owners were eager to hear the final buzzer.
“There was definitely some lessons learned on that one,” said Pete Capell, Camas city administrator, about the Hoops 360 road closures, which shut down the majority of streets in historic, downtown Camas.
Discussing how many events are held in downtown Camas — and the unintended consequences of those events’ associated road closures — was the driving force behind a recent standing-room-only meeting at Lacamas Lake Lodge, where business owners, city officials, members of the Downtown Camas Association (DCA) and interested citizens packed into extra chairs to discuss the balance between building community and keeping commerce flowing.
“Special events are important in creating community, but we really need to find a way to coexist with downtown businesses as well,” Capell said at the top of the meeting, held Wednesday, Sept. 19. “While they can be a nuisance for some people and some businesses, it is part of who we are.”
Capell was part of a delegation of city government in attendance, all hoping to gain some insight into what has become a somewhat contentious issue. Others present included Camas City Council members Melissa Smith and Bonnie Carter and Camas Police Chief Mitch Lackey.
The meeting was a series of public comments and brief exchanges between business owners, with occasional interjections by Capell or members of the DCA.
While the majority of the comments regarding the events’ frequency and size were negative, nearly all of the people commenting also had something positive to say — an acknowledgement of the importance of community or the possibility that a different business might benefit from a certain event or road closure.
Ed Fischer, owner of Camas Bike and Sport, was the driving force behind the Sept. 19 meeting. Fischer had approached the Camas City Council in August, following the basketball tournament, and helped poll other downtown Camas business owners about their thoughts regarding what he felt were too-frequent road closures in the heart of the city’s small business community.
“When I see my numbers show I’m losing $7,000 over a three-day weekend, I just can’t sit on my hands and not say anything about that,” Fischer said. “I’m just one business, I’m just one person, but there was obviously a lot of being people getting affected by (the road closures).”
Fischer said many service-oriented business owners have found the road closures negatively impact their bottom line, since customers often have to make special trips to visit those businesses. For instance, Camas Bike and Sport may be a retailer, but it also relies on its bike repair and service shop. Fischer pointed out that someone seeking a repair isn’t likely to lug a nonfunctional bicycle from their car, parked four or five blocks away when the core downtown roads, which pass right in front of the bike shop’s service center, are closed. And sometimes, if a customer is disappointed once, that’s all it takes to lose their business.
“My core customers are the ones I value the most,” Fischer said during the meeting. “They’re the ones that got me and kept me here. And when they call me during closures and say, ‘I’m just not gonna come down this weekend. I’m going to come another time.’ and then I don’t see them, it concerns me. I want to be there for them as much as they’ve been there for me.”
Other business owners and employees — including stylists from Urban Style Salon and Day Spa, Liberty Theatre owner Rand Thornsley and Diane Wintzer of Wintzer Acupuncture — expressed similar frustrations, and said older or differently abled customers often have trouble accessing their business’ front door during downtown road closures.
“Some patients (use) walkers. They get dropped off by (C-Tran) buses,” Wintzer said. “They can’t park three blocks away or six blocks away.”
The acupuncturist pointed out that her business, and others, also bring out-of-town visitors to downtown Camas — one of the things that event-supporters tout as a benefit of the frequent festivals and celebrations.
Wintzer’s main suggestion, which came up throughout the meeting, was that city leaders and those who plan events through the DCA or the Camas-Washougal Chamber of Commerce have better communication with business owners and downtown residents regarding events and street closures. Although the DCA does release an annual schedule of events, business owners suggested at the meeting that they didn’t know about specific road and parking closures until it was far too late to reschedule with clients and customers.
Carrie Schulstad, executive director of the DCA, came to the meeting prepared to defend long-standing Camas traditions.
According to Schulstad, there are seven days per year that result in a full downtown shutdown, and they’re all tied to events that have been happening for at least 10 years. The DCA sponsors four annual events that have road closures, including the Plant and Garden Fair, the classic car show, Camas Vintage & Art Faire and Boo Bash, while the city hosts the annual Hometown Holidays and the Chamber is in charge of the longstanding Camas Days celebration. (See sidebar for road closures connected to these events.)
Schulstad acknowledged that the Hoops 360 event, which closed portions of Northeast Fourth, Fifth and Sixth avenues from 8 a.m., Friday, Aug. 17 through 7 p.m., Sunday, Aug. 19, may have been the tipping point for many business owners. Still, the DCA director stood by the importance of these types of community-building gatherings.
“Events really help our town, help our community. We’re not going to stop having events. I know there are people who say they’d like that,” Schulstad said. “We just want to do the best we can.”
But finding a balance is difficult for a number of reasons. In her comment, Wintzer hit on the crux of what makes this a tough nut to crack: different events benefit some businesses while harming others.
“While other people are making a killing and making money, you just have to hold in balance that there’s a whole host of businesses that are actually taking a loss,” Wintzer said.
Although no one at the Lacamas Lake Lodge meeting professed to making a killing, some people admitted that the downtown events benefiting their business might have had adverse consequences for other business owners.
Most of the business owners who seemed in favor of the events and road closures seemed to come from the food and beverage services sector. Retailers and businesses that relied on pre-scheduled services were more likely to suffer negative effects from the road closures.
Todd and Tania Moravitz own the Nuestra Mesa Mexican restaurant on Northeast Fourth Avenue. They spoke at the meeting about what they see as valuable opportunities for the city as a whole.
“It’s really a community thing,” Todd said of the events and road closures. “It’s really kind of the big picture.”
The restaurant hosts live street music during First Friday events. Todd said the events aren’t always profitable for his restaurant, but they do bring people together — something he feels is important to a community like Camas.
Tania Moravitz agreed.
“If the beehive is thriving, everyone is thriving,” she said.
A handful of attendees brought hard data on their business’ profits and losses to the city administrators, detailing specifics on particular event weekends. Between that crowdsourced information and an hour and a half of public comment, Capell said he thought the meeting was a success.
“We got a bunch of ideas. I think we really need to look at the number of street closures. We need to evaluate those things that we’re doing,” Capell said after the meeting. “We can’t solve everybody’s problems or concerns, but we listen to them and see what we can do.”
Fischer conducted an informal survey of 42 downtown businesses prior to the meeting. According to him, everyone had a different event they favored and a different event they “hated.” Although that variation doesn’t make a well-rounded compromise easy, Fischer was optimistic that opening a dialogue was a step in the right direction.
“I think (the meeting) shed some light that there are lots of concerns, wants and needs in this town, and we just have to look at it collectively. Every single one of us here are a piece of this town,” Fischer said, during an interview outside his bike shop the day after the meeting. “I think, ultimately, we’ll come out of this with some solutions.”