The Camas Project

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Camas, Washington (pop. 22,449) where I live, is a ‘small town’; by national standards its population is average, but it feels much smaller than that number suggests. Certainly not a “one traffic light” town, but it suffers from a weak economy and lacks many of the amenities that you would associate with 20k+ residents (many good restaurants, entertainment options, active community, etc.). If you’re accustomed to having lots of things to do, prepare for disappointment. There isn’t much here, here.

A good portion of the town is rural. Many properties here are 5+ acres. We have feed stores. Pickup trucks make up much of the traffic. The phrase “driving into town” is used unironically. Some homes here use well water.

But then many of the residents are quite urban; professionals that have moved to Camas for our great schools and to live in a more family-friendly environment, even if that means a long commute. Camas is a “bedroom community”; a huge percentage of Camas residents commute into Vancouver, Washington or across the river to Portland, Oregon.

Local business development is weak and the money of our community flows towards those larger cities. City-sized salaries drive real estate prices up, increasing the cost of living. We are entirely dependent on those other cities to survive. If you have entrepreneurial instincts, you don’t execute on them in Camas.

Quality of life is good. The air is clean (the legacy of being a odorous mill town is finally fading, literally) and foresty areas are easily accessible. The public school system is expensive but excellent. Speed limits are slow, there’s little traffic, and even the local police are decent folks. There’s an amazing number of churches, if you’re into that sort of thing. It has “that small town feel”.

You could say Camas is a nice place to live but you wouldn’t want to visit there.

This combination of mixed rural distribution, commuter workforce, and lack of local opportunities and amenities collectively contribute to weak social bonds. I don’t feel connected to my neighbors or my community, and many other residents I’ve talked to share this perspective.

I see all this as a worthwhile and very difficult, though solvable, challenge: how to strengthen a community without damaging its character? How to increase local opportunities when the population is more engaged with nearby cities? How to grow our local economy and reduce our reliance on these cities, even getting to self-sufficiency?

I’ve been searching for ways to live a more purposeful life, and this is the first problem I’m going to investigate: is this a viable project? What would be the goal? How would I accomplish this? What would success look like? Are others already working on this? Here’s my first run at phrasing the goal:

To build a better Camas by growing our economy, strengthening our community, and building our civic self-sufficiency.

More specifics about this tomorrow.

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