Church’s downtown expansion prompts online concerns

Journey Church leaders to hold community focus groups before renovating former Camas Slices building

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A family passes by Camas Slices in downtown Camas on April 10, 2021. A holding company affiliated with the nearby Journey Community Church recently purchased the former Camas Slices building on the corner of Northeast Cedar Street and Northeast Fourth Avenue in downtown Camas, as well as the adjacent building that once housed a State Farm insurance office. Church leaders say they plan to host community focus groups this spring to help gather ideas about how it might turn the former pizza shop into a youth-centered space. (Kelly Moyer/Post-Record files)

Fans of Camas Slices, downtown Camas’ only pizza joint, were dismayed to learn this month that the 2-year-old eatery would be closing its doors on Sunday, April 23.

“It’s with a heavy heart we must announce that next weekend will be our last, along with Camas Brewing (Company),” the pizza shop’s owners announced April 16 on the restaurant’s Facebook page.

Eric Duensing, who had run a New York City style pizza shop in Washington D.C. before moving to the Pacific Northwest in 2014 and running a wood-fired pizza food truck out of a 1930s Ford flatbed on the Washington coast, opened Camas Slices in the heart of downtown Camas, at the former Mill City Brew Werks space, in January 2021.

Though the business opened during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic — and was only able to offer takeout and walk-up service during its first few months in business — eventually the restaurant opened for indoor dining and Duensing partnered with Gary Thompson, the owner of the Camas Brewing Company, to serve New York style slices and microbrews.

“We want to be the pizza guys of Camas,” Duensing told The Post-Record in 2021. “We believe in Camas and love the town.”

In his Facebook post, the pizza shop owner said the business had “ran into a series of adverse conditions — like a brand-new oven not working for the first year and COVID preventing its repair” but also that the owners “had to make some long-term personal/family choices.”

On Friday, April 21, customers inside Camas Slices were curious to see if the online rumors were true, and a worker informed them that, yes, sadly, the pizza shop was set to close for good in just a couple days.

“That’s too bad,” a customer said.

Online, most customers were also expressing their sadness and wishing the Camas Slices and Camas Brewing Company owners the best.

“So sad to read this,” one Facebook user commented. “As a (New Yorker) who misses a good slice, I loved having your place in town. Best of luck to you. Your amazing space and pizza will be missed.”

Some commenters focused less on the departing business and more on the people buying the building. JCC Holdings, LLC, a for-profit holding company affiliated with the nearby Journey Community Church, is in the process of purchasing the former Camas Slices building and many online commenters worried the church — through its JCC Holdings company — was taking over a large chunk of the city’s downtown commercial area.

“How many churches do we need?” asked one Facebook user. “Camas is beautiful for many reasons and those reasons are slowly being plucked away by outside influences. There (are) already 11 or 12 churches within a 5-mile radius of (downtown Camas). What do any of these churches invest in the community? … The last thing we need to do is take away revenue from the city by removing paying tenants.”

Other users chimed in with similar sentiments.

“I really wish it was going to be for retail space or another restaurant,” one Facebook user commented, adding that they had heard rumors that Journey Church intended to use the space as a youth center for their church members.

Several people were concerned because JCC Holdings already owned other downtown Camas properties — including the space on Northeast Fourth Avenue that used to house the Cake Happy bakery and the former State Farm insurance agency at 328 N.E. Fourth Ave.

With the purchase of the former Camas Slices building — a sale that was still in escrow as of Monday, April 24 — the church and its holding company will own every storefront along the southeast side of Northeast Fourth Avenue between Northeast Birch and Northeast Cedar streets.

That fact did not sit well with many people commenting on Camas Slices’ Facebook page.

“If the church takes over too much space, then there will be nothing else,” one Facebook user commented. “They need to chill with taking over (downtown) Camas.”

Journey Community Church pastors respond: ‘We’re as pro-Camas as you can get’

Journey Community Church was considered a “church plant,” or a new local church, when its founding pastor and a small congregation first started meeting at various Camas-area middle schools in the early 2000s.

In 2008, when the church moved into its current downtown Camas space on the corner of Fourth and Birch, the nation’s economy had dipped into a recession, and the city’s historic downtown business area was struggling.

“Camas was a ghost town. Even the Liberty Theatre was boarded up,” said Pastor Adrian Bucur, Journey Community Church’s lead pastor.

The church and its weekly crowd of parishoners helped kickstart the downtown revitalization process, Bucur added.

“We brought life into the city,” he said.

In the 15 years since, Journey has tried to be a good neighbor and advocate of the city’s now-thriving downtown business district and the Camas community in general, Bucur said. The church opens its doors for community activities during the Downtown Camas Association’s monthly First Friday events; serves free hot cocoa during the city’s annual Hometown Holidays festival; working with six local schools to provide more than 200 food baskets to local families in need; and takes part in other many other downtown Camas events, including the recent community cleanup on Sunday, April 23.

“We love this city and want to partner with it,” Bucur said. “We believe we are an ally to this community and bring a lot of value in terms of community outreach … and in giving people a sense of belonging to something greater than themselves. People are struggling right now to find meaning, to find purpose. And the best way to make sense (of it) is through a loving community.”

The church has continued to grow and expand through the years and now boasts an average weekly attendance of around 400 congregants. And while the original building on the corner of Fourth and Birch provides enough space for the church’s Sunday sermons and throughout-the-week sermons, Journey needed to find office space for its own clergy and staff.

The church itself is set up as a nonprofit organization, but the affiliated JCC Holdings that purchased the buildings adjacent to the church’s original space is a for-profit company that pays the same taxes as any other for-profit limited liability corporation, Bucur said.

“The holding company is for-profit and pays taxes and goes through all the legalities,” Bucur said, adding that the company will pay around $60,000 in taxes on its most recent building purchase.

The church and its holding company lease the downtown spaces — a homeschool group not affiliated with Journey meets inside the main church building throughout the week, and the Attic Gallery is renting one of the JCC Holding company spaces along Northeast Fourth Avenue.

“Our priority is to be a blessing to our community and be a part of a thriving downtown,” Bucur said. “We bring many people to downtown Camas each week — people who patronize many different businesses. We allow the DCA to use our spaces on First Fridays without cost. We partner with Bloodworks NW and other projects that use our space for free. Wew love this city. We’re not just a church, we’re a group of people that believe in this town. Around 80 to 85 percent of our people live in Camas and worship in Camas and send their kids to school in Camas. We love this community and want the best for this community.”

That’s one reason the church leaders were disheartened to see online comments that painted Journey Community Church in a somewhat negative light, Bucur said.

“There has been a lot of misinformation online,” the pastor said, citing rumors about the church’s intentions when it comes to the former site of Camas Slices on the corner of Fourth and Cedar.

“We are not intending that space to be for church-only usage,” Bucur said. “We are intending for it to be a public-facing business.”

Church leaders do hope the new space will be focused on youth, but not just Journey Church’s youth, Bucur said.

“We are looking to do some cool stuff for kids, for youth … but we’re still looking into what that looks like,” Bucur said, adding that church leaders do plan to include the Camas community in their planning process.

“We are going to provide some focus group opportunities for people — not just for our church community but for the whole community,” Bucur said. “We want to come up with a plan that, I think, will benefit everybody. We want to renovate (the former Camas Slices) building. It is set up as a restaurant, so there will be some build-out.”

Bucur said he plans to keep the community up-to-date on the building’s renovation plans.

“We will have mock-ups and drawings and some benchmark celebrations,” Bucur said. “And we will have information on our social media … and will dispel some of the rumors on our website through a (question-and-answer) format.”

For people who are interested in being part of the church’s focus groups or in sharing their hopes for what might become of the former Camas Slices building, Bucur recommends emailing and keeping up with the church’s social media pages.

“We will be having discussions in the next month and will have multiple focus groups,” Bucur said.

Pastor Jeff Miles, Journey Community Church’s executive pastor, said Journey’s leadership is committed to the betterment of the Camas community and its historic downtown.

“The important thing to know is that our heart is for Camas,” Miles said. “All of our pastors live in Camas. Most of our leadership lives in Camas. We want Camas to thrive. In no way do we want to hurt the downtown area. We feel like what we are doing will be a huge asset to downtown Camas by bringing in more people, more life and more energy and enhancing the vibe of downtown Camas. We love Camas. We’re as pro-Camas as you can get.”