Year in Review

Community-aquatics center, gaps in school funding, swimming hole tragedies dominated local news in 2019

A sign tells human visitors to keep away from "birds only" area at the Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge near Washougal in 2018. (Post-Record file photo)

Heather Kesmodel, of Camas, holds a "Honk if you (love trees)" sign at a July 17, 2019, Camas Tree Protectors event on Northwest 43rd Avenue in Camas.

Brendan Lee works in the Camas Hotel's main lobby on Monday, Sept. 9. Lee purchased the 107-year-old boutique hotel from former owners Terri and Dave Sauer in 2019.

Heller's Restaurant and Lounge in Washougal became Washougal Times in 2019, after the restaurant's former owners retired following 31 years in business.

Washougal Police Chief Ron Mitchell (second from right) and Portland Police Commander Wendi Steinbronn (left) talk to community members at a "Coffee with a Cop" event in November 2019. Mitchell retired at the end of 2019 and Steinbronn was named the new Washougal chief of police.

Ken Fisher Founder of Fisher Investments (Post-Record file photo)

Drivers move through an increasingly busy intersection at Northeast Lake Road and Northeast Everett Street in Camas. City leaders say the intersection "is at or near failure" and must be redesigned to accommodate traffic and make the area safer for pedestrians and bicyclists. (Contributed photo courtesy of Port of Camas-Washougal)

An aerial view of Port of Camas-Washougal properties shows the marina and Washougal Waterfront Park and Trail. The Port's mixed-use waterfront development plans kicked into high gear in 2019. (Post-Record file photo)

Barry McDonnell talks to voters at a Camas Youth Council candidate forum in October 2019. McDonnell, one of two last-minute write-in candidates hoping to unseat incumbent Camas Mayor Shannon Turk in the November 2019 general election, garnered nearly 54 percent of the votes. (Post-Record file photo)

The Sandy Swimming Hole Park in Washougal was the site of a double vehicular homicide during the summer of 2019. (Contributed photo courtesy of Blue Turtle Pro Media)

Friends of Anthony Huynh, the 14-year-old boy who drowned in Lacamas Lake on Aug. 20, 2019, placed balloons, photos and messages of love on the Camas pedestrian bridge crossing the lake. (Post-Record file photo)

(Post-Record file photo) Washougal students line up for their school buses in 2018.

An illustration shows what the "aquatics" portion of the proposed Camas Community and Aquatics Center may have looked if voters had approved a $78 million bond proposal in the November 2019 general election. (Contributed illustration courtesy of city of Camas)

From political upsets in the Camas mayor’s race to tragedies at local swimming holes to school districts grappling with funding shortfalls, there was no shortage of news stories coming out of Camas-Washougal in 2019. Following is a look back at the “top 10” news stories that caught Post-Record readers’ attention in 2019:

No. 10: Going green

Camas-Washougal residents were thinking globally and acting locally when it came to the environment in 2019. Throughout the year, the Post-Record ran stories highlighting local efforts to protect everything from trees to bees.

On July 12, we published a story about a planned “sit-in” at a site off Northwest 43rd Avenue in Camas, where members of the Camas Tree Protectors were protesting what they called the “urban clear-cutting” of a treed site slated for a housing development.

Just a couple weeks later, on July 25, a front-page Post-Record story focused on what local bee experts were calling a “widespread pollinator disappearance,” and highlighted a Camas gardener who was sounding the alarm after she noticed a nearly complete absence of bees from her normally buzzing garden.

In early August, we wrote about a restoration project at the Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Washougal that was expected to be a “game-changer” for the environment and the animals that depend on the refuge.

Other stories, published in November and December, focused on a Camas couple’s quest to live a more sustainable lifestyle by building a unique solar structure that will power their electric vehicle and parts of their home; and a group of Camas parents’ bid to re-site a planned cell tower at least 1,500 feet away from Woodburn Elementary School due to concerns about the tower’s possible negative impacts on children’s health.

No. 9: It’s the economy

Local economic and business news also played a starring role in the Post-Record’s news coverage in 2019.

The saga of Camas Produce made headlines in January when an impaired driver smashed through the market’s front window, causing the shop’s closure; in March, when the store’s owner said he hoped to reopen the market “soon” but had been experiencing delays due to damage to the store’s refrigeration units; and finally in early November, when the market reopened and announced it had expanded its food as well as beer and wine selections and extended its hours.

Camas residents and small business owners went on a rollercoaster ride in 2019, after producers of the reality show, “Small Business Revolution — Main Street,” named Camas as one of the “top 20” and then one of the “top 10” towns vying for a featured spot on the show’s fourth season as well as a $500,000 “small business makeover.” In February, after months of promotions, excitement and online voting, supporters of the “MyCamas” movement gathered at the Liberty Theatre to watch the live announcement that the town of Searcy, Arkansas — not Camas — had won the top prize.

Other business news that intrigued our readers in 2019 included the sale of Heller’s restaurant in Washougal — now the Washougal Times — after more than 30 years under the same ownership; a new owner at the Camas Hotel; the disbanding of the Camas-Washougal Economic Development Association and the announcement in November that the Portland Spirit company, which runs popular riverboat cruises on the Columbia and Willamette rivers in Portland and in the Columbia River Gorge, plans to run another Gorge cruise from Washougal starting in July 2020.

No. 8: Washougal names new police chief

In July, we reported that Washougal’s longtime police chief, Ron Mitchell, had announced that he planned to retire before the end of 2019. In September, a front-page story highlighted the four candidates — including Camas resident and Portland police commander Wendi Steinbronn — vying to be Washougal’s next chief of police. And, in November, we reported that Washougal leaders had selected Steinbronn, a 25-year veteran of the Portland Police Bureau, as the city’s next police chief. Steinbronn started her new position at the end of November, just after the Thanksgiving holiday.

No. 7: Camas, Washougal get ready for roundabouts

Traffic roundabouts were the talk of both Camas and Washougal in 2019, with one city (Camas) hosting meetings and online surveys to design its newest roundabout at the Lake Road and Everett Street intersection; and another city (Washougal) celebrating the groundbreaking on two traffic roundabouts being installed along Highway 14.

The issue drew more than 125 concerned community members to a February town hall in Camas, causing the city to schedule a second open house in April to further discuss the planned intersection revamp. By May, city staff had settled on a roundabout design and by November, city council members were nailing down landscaping plans for the future roundabout.

In Washougal, officials from the city, the Port of Camas-Washougal and the state gathered in late May for the groundbreaking of two traffic roundabouts along Highway 14 at Washougal River Road and at 32nd Street. In September, Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) officials said the roundabouts were on track to be completed by the end of 2019.

No. 6: Founder’s comments land Camas’ largest employer in hot water

Fisher Investments, which is headquartered in Camas and is, with more than 1,750 local employees, the city’s largest private employer, made international headlines in 2019 after investors pulled more than $3 billion from the company’s portfolio following inappropriate comments made by the company’s founder, Ken Fisher, at an investment conference in San Francisco.

In October, Ken Fisher penned an opinion piece for the Post-Record — his first public comments on the situation — and apologized for any grief his comments had caused local employees or community members. Company officials told the Post-Record in October that Fisher Investments had put together a task force to “examine all aspects of the state of (diversity and inclusion) at Fisher.”

No. 5: Port gets moving on waterfront development

After getting zero bites from developers interested in revamping the Port of Camas-Washougal’s prime waterfront property during its 2018 request for proposals (RFP), Port leaders turned to their “Plan B” in January 2019, and hired Leland Consulting Group of Portland to help guide the Port in developing the waterfront.

By April, the Port had hired the Portland commercial real estate development firm RKm Development to plan the 35-acre Parker’s Landing waterfront development.

In July, Roy Kim, owner of RKm, told community members and Port leaders he planned to take advantage of the site’s history and outstanding waterfront views. The Port unveiled four concepts for the waterfront development in mid-July. In November, a committee formed by Port officials to investigate an arts and culture center pitched building a 50,000-square-foot, 1,200-seat “destination facility” on the waterfront site. In December, Port officials were close to approving the first phase of the development, which includes 13 mixed-use buildings for retail/residential; an amphitheater or performing arts space in the waterfront’s cove; two principal north-south streets; a small traffic roundabout on the southeast corner; a view tower; a vendor market; a central plaza; and a main street running east and west along the waterfront’s edge that could be closed off for festivals or other events.

No. 4: Political upset in Camas

Dissatisfaction over a $78 million bond proposal to build a community-aquatics center in Camas translated into political upset during the November general election and the ouster of Mayor Shannon Turk.

Turk — a longtime city councilwoman appointed to the mayoral seat in November 2018 by her council peers after the city’s former mayor, Scott Higgins, quit in the middle of his third term — publicly supported Proposition 2, a ballot measure that would have allowed the city to spend up to $78 million to build a new community center with two indoor pools, gymnasiums, basketball courts, a walking track and other athletic and community focused spaces — as well as revamp several sports fields at Camas parks.

Although she had been running unopposed, Turk faced two last-minute opponents: City Councilwoman Melissa Smith and Camas newcomer Barry McDonnell.

McDonnell, a father of four who moved to Camas in 2016, opposed the city’s plans to build a community-aquatics center and decided to enter the mayoral race in October, just a few weeks before the Nov. 5 general election.

McDonnell launched a GoFundMe campaign that raised close to $5,000 and was active in trying to get his name out to Camas voters: sending mailers, putting out yard signs, answering questions on social media sites like NextDoor, establishing a website and even starting a podcast to talk about himself and his family, which includes wife, Anastasia, and the couple’s four children, ages 2 to 13.

Both McDonnell and Smith said they saw what seemed to be a disconnect between the mayor and citizens.

“People love Camas the way that it is,” McDonnell told the Post-Record in October. “From my standpoint, it doesn’t feel like a citizen-driven future. I would like to change that so we can have more dialogue when putting future plans together.”

McDonnell won the November election with nearly 54 percent of the vote and stepped into his new role as Camas’ mayor at the Dec. 2 Camas City Council meeting.

No. 3: Tragedy strikes local swimming holes

Normally serene swimming holes in Washougal and Camas became the sites of two different tragedies in 2019. The first occurred June 25 at the Sandy Swimming Hole Park in Washougal when police say a Washougal man, 71-year-old David E. Croswell, ran through a barrier above the park, drove his vehicle down an embankment and into the park, running over and killing two German tourists, Regina Hohstadt, 62, and Rudolf Hohstadt, 61, who had been sunbathing near the riverside beach, and then driving away from the scene. Police located Croswell within five hours of the hit and run, and he was later charged with two counts of vehicular homicide. Court records later showed Croswell’s blood alcohol content (BAC) level was .085, just above the .08 BAC limit needed to charge a person with driving under the influence.

The second tragedy occurred in Camas’ popular Lacamas Lake on Aug. 20, when a Vancouver teen drowned. Police said 14-year-old Anthony T. Huynh went to the Camas lake with five friends around 4 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 20, and had been jumping into the lake from the Northeast Everett Street pedestrian bridge before becoming separated from the group. After searching for an hour, Huynh’s friends called 911 at 6 p.m. for help locating the teen. Divers located the boy’s body around 9:30 p.m. that evening. The Clark County Medical Examiner’s Office later said Huynh died from an accidental drowning.

No. 2: School districts tackle multi-million-dollar deficits

School district leaders in Camas and Washougal faced large budget deficits in 2019 thanks to a state school-funding model that sought to make funding equitable throughout Washington state’s school districts but reduced local levies that districts such as Camas and Washougal relied on to supplement state funding in previous years.

In Washougal, school district leaders used reserve funds to help shore up a $1.2 million deficit. In Camas, school district officials formed a committee of district staff, community members and business leaders to help close that district’s $8.2 million funding gap. In the end, the district used a combination of budget cuts including $750,000 in the central office; $1.9 million to certificated teachers; $100,000 in school administration; $440,000 to classified instruction; $420,000 in classified operations; and $850,000 in non-staffing costs — and reserve funds to cover its deficit.

No. 1: Camas voters sink community-aquatics center

The city of Camas’ Proposition 2, also known as the “$78 million pool bond,” which would have built a community-aquatics center and renovated sports fields throughout the city, failed by more than 90 percent in the Nov. 5 general election.

Online and in public meetings, bond opponents questioned everything from the $78 million price tag, which would have cost taxpayers an additional $1.04 per $1,000 in assessed property value in 2021, to the proposed location of the center on a busy stretch of Northeast Lake Road near Lacamas and Fallen Leaf lakes, to the ongoing maintenance and operations costs the center would have required.

City council members were unanimous in their decision to put the issue to voters, and many longtime Camas leaders said the idea of building a public community-aquatics center — as well as improving sports fields in the city — was something that had long ranked as a priority for Camas citizens.

When they voted in July 2019 to bring the issue to voters, city councilors had reviewed 12 options presented by city staff.

The selected option was not the most expensive — the highest ticket option also included a $12 million sports complex — but it would have offered the most amenities, including a 78,000-square-foot building with a recreation pool, a competition lap pool, gymnasium, community rooms, cardio and weight rooms, and an indoor walk-jog track.

The bond proposal also included $5.8 million in site improvement costs, including traffic and parking improvements if the city had gone ahead with the site near Lacamas Lake; as well as $6 million worth of upgrades to local sports fields.