By Zach Hagadone
The honor roll of departed community icons is getting uncomfortably long. With the passing March 13 of Erik Daarstad, at age 87, Sandpoint has lost yet another irreplaceable personality — an individual of uncommon wit, humor and decency, whose metier was to give back to everything and everyone around him.
You can read much more about Erik on Page 16, and you’ll see him gracing this week’s cover in an image generously shared by his family. For my part, I just needed to say how much I appreciated his friendship going back almost 20 years, when I met him through an also-dearly departed local icon and mutual friend, Bob Gunter, with whom Erik palled around and worked on various projects and schemes for years.
The news of Erik’s swift transition from a surprise cancer diagnosis at the beginning of the month to hospice care to the inevitable in about a week was a stunner, and aside from deep sadness, it also threw into relief for me the rate at which the good ones are going.
This is only natural, of course, but I can’t help but feel like it’s a particularly fraught time in the life of Sandpoint for its longtime cultural pillars to be leaving it.
Generally speaking, Sandpoint is on a demographic knife’s edge. According to 2021 numbers, the median statewide age is 40. In North Idaho, that rises to 45 and, in Bonner County, it’s 47.9 years of age. Only 20% of Bonner County residents are under the age of 18 and 23.8% are older than 65. Statewide, those figures are 25.7% and 15.4%, respectively.
Meanwhile, according to data included in a report from Portland, Ore.-based Leland Consulting commissioned by the city in 2022, as the population leapt more than 4% between 2020 and 2022, every one of those new Sandpointians were people who moved here. There weren’t enough babies born in Bonner County to offset the number of people who died, therefore we are experiencing a natural population decline amid a dramatic artificial upswing.
Putting a finer point on it, “More people are dying than are being born in the county,” Leland Consulting President Chris Zahas told the council in July 2022.
Based on the numbers, that trend has been going on at least since 2010, and it’s hard to imagine that it won’t continue as our already older-than-average population continues to do what people do and get older until they don’t anymore, at the same time as local economics continue to make it harder and harder for young people to settle down to the business of creating a natural population increase.
That we will be a foundationally different community in the next 10 years is assured. What that looks like will be determined by the younger people who step in to fill the cultural voids increasingly left by people like Erik — and I specify “cultural” with intention, because those are the people who truly build community, serving on nonprofit boards, volunteering for organizations, creating art of various kinds and generally being contributors to, rather than consumers or extractors of, our “lifestyle.”
There are people like that who are already moving into these roles, but I do worry about the longer-term sustainability of maintaining local vibrancy in the face of these much larger forces. I don’t think I’m being over-dramatic or needlessly doom-struck about this.
The same day that I was grieving the loss of Erik, I went to the 80th birthday celebration of a family friend, who also happens to be one of those community cultural icons whom I’ve loved and looked up to for most of my life.
Surrounding her that night at a favorite downtown restaurant were dozens of other community pillars who have given decades of their varied talents to enriching Sandpoint in their own ways — from the arts to education to entrepreneurship.
It had been a long time since I enjoyed the company of many of those people, and it left me feeling comforted and connected in ways I haven’t felt much since returning home to a Sandpoint in painful flux since 2019. It reminded me of what real community feels like — away from the jockeying local politicos, fire-breathing culture warriors and big-money opportunists consuming the town in a frenzy of amenity exploitation, which usually dominate my working life.
One of the party attendees bent my ear for a while, talking about all these issues, but what he came down to was that while his generation — the wave of the 1970s and early-’80s — had helped create and steward the Sandpoint that so many people want to buy today, the generation that they created won’t be around, able or willing to continue the work.
I agree, but if there’s a fitting tribute to those local culture-creators who’ve gone before, it’s to follow their example however and whenever we can.
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