When Camas business owner Jacquie Hill was applying for a competitive small-business grant earlier this year, she knew she wanted to use part of the money to help the whole community.
Hill, the owner of LiveWell Camas, a movement and wellness studio at 417 N.E. Birch St., in downtown Camas, always had an affinity for community gardens, but knew how difficult it was to find communal gardening plots in the Camas area.
“There is only one community garden in Camas that I know of,” Hill said, “and it’s quite difficult to get a plot, because people have been there forever.”
That problem held true for many community gardens throughout the Portland-Vancouver area, Hill said: once gardeners were lucky enough to get a plot in a community garden, they tended to hang on to their spot for years, and new gardeners couldn’t find a plot to call their own.
Hill wanted to change the story in Camas by providing a community garden that would not only rotate through gardeners each year, but also provide scholarship plots for folks who couldn’t afford the garden fees and offer educational opportunities to local schools and other groups.
Having weathered the COVID-19 pandemic, Hill knew there was a need for more affordable, healthy food in Camas.
“Last year, I was working with local farms here to help distribute food they’d grown to local food pantries,” Hill said. “And, especially at the beginning (of the pandemic), when people were losing their jobs and still waiting to see what would happen with their unemployment (insurance), it became evident that food insecurity was on the rise.”
When she wrote her grant proposal for the highly competitive Main Street America “At Your Side” grant, Hill included a $3,000-earmark to start a community garden in Camas, preferably in the city’s historic downtown area.
In March, Hill found out that she was one of just eight small business owners in the United States to receive an At Your Side grant.
Main Street America, a national program that helps revitalize historic downtown commercial districts, started the At Your Side grant program in 2020. The idea was to give grants between $5,000 and $10,000 to help brick-and-mortar small businesses adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic and prepare for their states’ various reopening phases.
Hill’s business, LiveWell Camas, was the only Washington business chosen to receive one of the At Your Side grants.
In her grant proposal to Main Street America, Hill highlighted the need for community-oriented businesses like LiveWell — a socially conscious business that strives to make its movement and wellness services available to all Camas-area residents regardless of income and ability — to help make their communities whole during and after the pandemic.
“Even though the median income in Camas is quite high, there are many, many families that are struggling,” Hill said. “And I didn’t understand why we didn’t have more community gardens … so I thought, ‘I guess I’ll just make one.'”
Hill is hoping to put together a steering committee with locals who want to get the community garden up and running, and she’s reached out to the city of Camas’ new parks and recreation director, to inquire about possible public spaces for the future garden.
The parks director told Hill about a few parks that might work, but also mentioned a vacant, city-owned piece of property on Northeast Fifth Avenue in downtown Camas, just half a block away from the Camas Public Library.
Hill said that space, which is located between two homes and walking distance from downtown Camas businesses, as well many of the downtown Camas apartments and mixed-use residences that don’t have any space for gardening, would be a perfect fit.
The only glitch in that plan, however, is the fact that the Northeast Fifth Avenue property would require a new water-line connection, and that could cost up to $10,000, Hill said.
“I would like to have the garden downtown,” Hill said, “because it would add to the curb appeal of what’s happening downtown, and there are already quite a few people living in downtown — above stores and in the new multi-family (apartments), and they don’t have access to yards for gardening.”
The Main Street grant gave $3,000 for the community garden, and LiveWell clients recently raised another $500, but Hill needs that money to get the garden off the ground. Paying for a site that doesn’t have running water could prove too expensive.
Hill’s hope is to secure a site — preferably in the downtown area — form a small committee interested in getting the garden up and running, and have initial plantings happening in the fall
“I’m trying to be as realistic as possible with the timing,” Hill said. “It will take time to get everything moving forward, so I don’t have any hopes of having it up and going by this summer, but I would like to have something by fall.”
Hill envisions the garden being used as a model for other community garden plots throughout Camas.
“Long-term it could be a citywide program to help people have access to fresh food and learn how to grow their own food,” Hill said. “I think the biggest missing pieces of the puzzle right now are getting people who are willing to help and be on the committee, and finding a location. Once we have those two essential pieces put together, I think things will move quickly.”
Anyone interested in being a part of the community garden steering committee should visit Hill’s LiveWell Camas website at livewellcamas.com and click on the community garden link.