Entrepreneur Mark Camp steers energy in multiple directions
Mark Camp’s typical day is an attention-deficit sufferer’s dream.
Depending on the season, it might include investigating real-estate opportunities, roasting coffee, meeting with fellow South Perry entrepreneurs and/or city officials, welding, mowing lawns and performing with one of his two bands.
“My main job is roasting coffee, and that’s what I love to do,” Camp said. “But I’m also intrigued by real estate, and feel like I’ve had a little bit of success. I never imagined being involved in community service, but ended up tying the two together.”
His properties include The Shop and the Altamont Pharmacy building on South Perry; Jones Radiator, a pub at 120 E. Sprague; and Cannon Coffee & Cone in Browne’s Addition.
Camp recently paused long enough to reflect on what it takes to revive struggling neighborhood business districts.
S-R: Were you an entrepreneurial youngster?
Camp: Not so much. But I was pretty active in things. During high school in Wenatchee, I was involved with student government.
S-R: When did you move here?
Camp: After earning an advertising degree (from Washington State University) in ‘94. I got a job as a barista in one of the first coffee drive-thrus in Spokane – Caveman Coffee, by Sacred Heart. I got the coffee job because I was playing music with a friend who moved here, and I wanted a no-brainer job so I wouldn’t have a lot of take-home stress.
S-R: What drew you to the South Perry neighborhood?
Camp: A hobby of mine is metalwork, and I was looking for a space to weld.
S-R: What was South Perry like back in the mid-’90s?
Camp: It was terrible. Bullet holes, broken windows, empty spaces, lots of crime. People would say, “I won’t even go there at night.”
S-R: What did it cost to rent what would become The Shop?
Camp: I paid $200 a month in ‘94. I actually lived there for a couple of years. It was like a ground-floor loft – big, open spaces. The band I played in practiced there. It was really fun – one of the best places I ever lived.
S-R: Were people skeptical when you first described your vision for South Perry?
Camp: A lot of skeptics, and a lot of holdouts – property owners who said, “Why are you wasting your time volunteering and trying to raise money to improve the neighborhood?” I wanted to put in street trees and improve the sidewalks. They said that would just mean leaves and more work for them.
S-R: Why did you persist?
Camp: I’d lived in downtown Minneapolis, and thought, “This isn’t that bad.” Spokane needed something that felt like a district – like Fremont in Seattle – and South Perry had character. At first, I wanted this to be an arts district. But after I got involved, I saw a danger in gentrifying a neighborhood. I want businesses that would be accessible to people who lived around here.
S-R: Were banks interested in loaning you money to buy The Shop and Altamont Pharmacy buildings?
Camp: Not really. I had support from my parents, and I have to give my ex-wife a lot of credit. She kept us afloat in the early days. My approach was to lock in tenant leases before we’d try to get loans to remodel.
S-R: Was The Shop coffee house and music venue successful from the start?
Camp: It just scraped by. But it’s always had an incredibly loyal following.
S-R: Who helped get the business district moving in the right direction?
Camp: The East Central Steering Committee, City Hall and Spokane Transit were all great. They reallocated funds and pointed me toward the right people.
S-R: Was there a tipping point?
Camp: Yes. About four years ago. And I hate to say it – no, I don’t hate to say it – the key thing was the (state) Liquor Control Board changing the way it measured the distance between the school (Grant Elementary) and some new businesses. Instead of as the crow flies, they measured by common footpaths. Also, none of the restaurants could have happened without some relief in parking requirements. That allowed The Lantern (Tavern), Casper Fry and South Perry Pizza to go in.
S-R: Looking back, what ideas have worked well?
Camp: One of the best ideas was offering free outdoor movies, which we started about 10 years ago. Those drew people from the entire city, and The Shop kept getting press, which helped generate interest in the neighborhood.
S-R: How about bad ideas?
Camp: I was not excited to have a gasoline station come in. I like the people who own the Hi-Co Market, but that’s not a pedestrian business, which is what we’re trying to encourage.
S-R: South Perry redevelopment is going into its 15th year. How much potential remains to be realized?
Camp: I think it can get really interesting. I can’t wait for (new retail space and rental units across the street from The Shop) to happen. I have a hunch that the houses (fronting Perry north of The Shop) could eventually be turned into commercial space. If we can attract more independent shops and restaurants (rather than franchises), this could be really cool. But I don’t advocate telling businesses what they can or can’t do. I grew up near Leavenworth, and that (restrictive business district) kind of makes my skin crawl.
S-R: How have people reacted to South Perry’s revival. Has anyone grabbed you by the lapel and said, “Thank you for doing this”?
Camp: Yes! Way more than I ever expected. Several people have told me they chose to buy a house in the neighborhood because of this activity.
S-R: Do any other slumbering Spokane neighborhoods have the potential to create their own vibrant commercial character?
Camp: Garland probably has the greatest potential, because it has more retail space to fill. But the downside is that neighborhood doesn’t have the diversity of income levels we have. It’s more of a destination. We have more economic and cultural diversity, with million-dollar homes one way, apartments the other. Our business district is common ground.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Camp: Being allowed to be creative. And I love the people I get to meet.
S-R: What do you like least?
Camp: My downside is my day-to-day structure. This morning I met with three potential coffee clients. I also looked at a building, and I’m looking at another this afternoon, just because I’m intrigued by them. I probably need more self-discipline.
S-R: What advice would you offer someone who wants to start a business in a marginal neighborhood?
Camp: Generate as much energy as you can about your business. And be prepared for a long haul.
S-R: You went into this without a business background. What’s the main lesson you learned along the way?
Camp: Save for your taxes. (big laugh)
Spokane freelance writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.