Camas’ new parks director hits the ground running

Trang Lam dives into 6-year parks plan update weeks after coming on board

To say Trang Lam has hit the ground running would be a bit of an understatement.

The city of Camas’ new parks and recreation director — one of 60 applicants vying to replace longtime Camas parks director Jerry Acheson, who retired in December 2020 — moved into her new role on Jan. 25.

Less than two months later, at a March 15 Camas City Council workshop, Lam launched the first stage of the city’s six-year Parks, Recreation and Open Space (PROS) Comprehensive Plan update, which will help guide parks, green spaces and recreation areas in the city through 2028.

“This is very exciting to me because I get to kick off my tenure here in Camas updating the comp plan for our parks and open space areas,” Lam told city councilors in March. “Over time, our city changes, which is why we update these.”

Camas last updated its comprehensive parks plan in 2014 and should have had another six-plan beginning in 2021, but the COVID-19 pandemic — as well as Acheson’s retirement after a 30-year stint and the search for a new parks director — threw a wrench in the plan to begin another six-year update.

When Lam came on board in late January, she dove straight into the comprehensive plan update.

“This time around we want to do something slightly different,” Lam recently told the Post-Record. “We’re going to use the Parks and Recreation Commission as an advisory body and check in with them more often. Our commissioners are very involved with parks and recreation. They’re the eyes and ears in the community and they can help connect me with some of (the community’s hopes for Camas’ parks and recreation system.) I want to know: What’s working? What does the community love? We want more of that. We want to learn from that.”

At their April 4 meeting, the Camas City Council members approved Lam’s request to award a $118,327 contract to Conservation Technix, a Portland-based consultant group founded in 2006 by former Clark County planner Steve Duh that helps local governments and nonprofits throughout the Pacific Northwest finance and conserve greenspaces.

Conservation Technix will prepare the updated PROS plan for the city of Camas, with a final plan to be approved by March 2022.

Before reaching out to the public, the consultants will gather data on Camas’ demographics; evaluate the city’s existing parks facilities and open spaces; search for potential improvement opportunities; and review the city’s existing parks plans, including the North Shore Subarea Plan, which calls for retaining natural areas, building a continuous, multi-use trail around Lacamas Lake and developing more public parks in an 800-acre undeveloped area on the city’s northern boundary; and the 20-year Crown Park Master Plan approved by the city council in 2018, which included an amphitheater for outdoor movies and concerts, new restrooms, a multi-use sports court, accessible sidewalks and the installation of a splash pad to replace the city’s former outdoor swimming pool.

After that, Lam and the consultants will tackle the public engagement piece of the 6-year update.

“COVID limits our ability to meet in-person, but we want to be inclusive,” Lam said. “We’re starting to think about how to reach our seniors — not all of them have access to computers.”

Lam views the comprehensive parks plan update as a way to talk about how Camas’ wide system of lakes, trails, natural areas and recreation site impacts the entire Camas-Washougal region.

“We want to engage with our neighbors (including East Vancouver, Washougal and even Gresham and East Portland across the Columbia River) who are traveling through Camas and coming here to enjoy our parks and regional assets,” Lam said. “We recognize there may be people out there that we haven’t engaged before.”

The PROS plan will form a community needs assessment to identify future demand for parks, open spaces and other recreation facilities in the future, as well as evaluate opportunities to connect with other parks and open spaces in the region.

To take advantage of state grant opportunities, the city will need to approve the comprehensive parks plan update by March 2022, which means Lam and the consultants have just a short window of time this year — May through September — to engage the public, meet with regional stakeholders and gather information about the community’s priorities for Camas’ parks, open spaces and recreation sites.

The draft PROS plan will make its way through the Parks and Recreation Commission and Planning Commission before coming before the Camas City Council in early 2022.

The majority of the consultant’s costs will come during the analysis of the city’s existing parks and recreation facilities ($21,714), the community engagement piece ($39,913) and the creation of a community needs assessment ($10,640). The consultants expect the total cost of the PROS planning will be $101,969, with optional services, including pop-up events and online surveys in Spanish, available if city leaders deem them necessary.

One of Lam’s concerns is how Camas might grow its parks and open spaces system and meet the community’s needs while still being prudent with taxpayers’ money.

“We want to grow the system sustainably,” Lam said. “Which means we need to be open and honest about how we will afford these things. We just bought all of this (open spaces and parks) land, so how do we maintain it, even before it’s developed?”

The overwhelming majority of Camas voters who cast a ballot in the November 2019 general election shot down the city’s $75 million bid to build a new community-aquatics center and upgrade sports fields throughout the city in part because of concerns over that very question: “How will we afford to maintain it?”

Lam said she hopes to learn from the failed community-aquatics center bond, as well as from past public outreach efforts that resulted in plans like the Crown Park Master Plan.

“The (Crown Park) master plan took a lot of effort and had a lot of community voices,” Lam said. “But I wasn’t there, so I don’t have the history of those voices. I want to be a part of the listening process.”

Lam hopes to re-evaluate the public’s desire for Crown Park. If people do want to see a water feature at the park, such as the splash pad included in the master plan, “then, OK, this is what the community wants, and we can go back to the existing master plan,” Lam said. “But if the PROS plan says people actually do want a pool, then we will have a new conversation.”

The public can expect to see opportunities to weigh in on the future of Camas parks, open spaces and recreation facilities over the next few weeks, Lam said.

“We will have mailers, short polls, a designated website … and we want to do some personal, in-person events if we continue to stay in Phase 3 or move to Phase 4,” Lam said, referring to the state’s four-phase COVID-19 reopening plan. “If we can’t be in-person, we will figure out a way to do some virtual (events).”

To read a copy of the Camas PROS Plan, visit bit.ly/3wSOxXS.

A ‘natural progression’ toward parks

Lam’s path toward becoming one of Camas’ most visible department heads started nearly two decades ago, when Sam Adams, best known as Portland’s former mayor, but then a newly elected Portland City Council member, included Lam’s family’s food manufacturing business on his “100 Businesses in 100 Days” tour.

Lam’s extended family, including her parents, grandparents and several aunts and uncles, fled post-war Vietnam in 1979 as refugees and settled in Portland in 1980. Lam, the youngest of five, was just 4 years old when she arrived in Oregon, and she became a product of Portland schools — graduating from Benson High School and earning her bachelor’s degree from Portland State University.

Though her career dreams steered more toward architecture than business, Lam found herself running her family’s food manufacturing business when Adams came knocking in 2004.

“It was toward the tail end of my working there, and I said, ‘Well, Sam, it’s a little late. I’m selling the business, and I’m not sure what I’m going to do next,'” Lam recalls. “He said, ‘You should go work for local government.’ and I said, ‘What are you talking about?'”

Adams saw something in Lam and introduced her to some of the people running the Portland Development Commission, but Lam had other plans. In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina devastated the country’s Gulf Coast, Lam and her husband signed up to do relief work.

“That was what really got me thinking about what I could do to help my community,” Lam said.

In 2006, Lam took a position with the PDC and began reaching out to neighborhoods impacted by redeveloped brownfields and transportation projects. Later, she would help small business owners connect to government resources and manage the PDC’s neighborhood urban renewal areas. Eventually, Lam moved on to jobs with the city of Portland’s parks and recreation department and the University of Portland.

Her path to Camas may not seem linear to people on the outside, but Lam said she sees it as “a straight line … a natural progression.”

Lam said she has always tried to figure out how her work could contribute to a better community. Helping to conserve natural areas and build parks that make people happy is just one more step toward that end goal.

The native Portlander has fallen in love with Camas and its beautiful natural spaces and parks. She and her husband plan to relocate from Portland to Camas this summer.

“I’ve been getting to know more people and just went to my first First Friday in downtown Camas, so that was fun,” Lam said. “I will always love Portland. I will always be ‘a Portland girl,’ but Camas is a good place for me. I’m really looking forward to being in this community.”