By Ben Olson
One of my favorite times to walk around downtown Sandpoint is “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” as Frank Sinatra put it. All the drunks from the bars have wandered home to their fitful dreams. The gaggles of tourists and looky-loos are still posted up in their hotel rooms, preparing for a long day of window shopping real estate most of them can’t afford. Maybe an elderly dog-walker or the newspaper delivery driver might catch your eye in the predawn hours, but otherwise you pretty much have the town to yourself.
It’s a quiet time. A time of reflection and solace. A time when locals can admire the historic buildings in peace, hear the wind blowing through the few trees still left standing along Sand Creek and experience this beautiful town in its most pristine, untrampled state.
For many longtime locals, they can remember a Sandpoint that was hungry for out-of-town visitors. They recall kitchy advertising campaigns designed to attract well-heeled tourists, hoping that it might aid retail shops, bars and restaurants in stockpiling revenue to help them weather the slow winter months.
Nowadays, those who live here generally prefer to keep their traps shut when someone asks about Sandpoint.
“It’s full of bubonic plague rats,” I used to tell people when they asked what my hometown was like. “It’s OK, I guess, but it snows 10 feet a year and rains the rest of the time. The lake is slimy green and the sky has a blood-red post-apocalyptic hue most hours of the day.”
The fact of the matter is that Sandpoint has largely been “discovered,” which is a euphemism that really means it has been targeted. Anyone still promoting Sandpoint is either trying to make a buck or they just moved here and are trying to justify spending a half million dollars for a house that cost $110,000 just three years ago.
The people moving to North Idaho are no longer young families and outdoors seekers, but now seem to have a political pied piper they are following. Or they are stinking rich. The gray area doesn’t really exist anymore. New home prices have skyrocketed to the point where only retirees and douche bags can afford to move here.
In the past, when asking newcomers what brought them to Sandpoint, answers varied widely. Some came for a new job or to be closer to recreation. Others came because their extended families lived here or they passed through on a road trip and fell in love with the place. Most will remember their first trip across the Long Bridge, wondering why they’d never heard about this little paradise before. Each newcomer would feel like they were just let in on a secret, and most guarded that secret as best they could to prevent Sandpoint from becoming another Aspen or Park City.
Now, when asking what brought someone here, you’ll more than likely hear some variation on the theme: “We moved here for liberty,” as if freedom only exists in Idaho. Spurred on by fear mongering advertisements placed in newspapers all over the West by the Idaho Freedom Foundation, these budding John Birchers believe they’ve found their last stand, foolishly believing that everyone here believes the same as them. Their “liberty” is defined by rights with no responsibilities and greed over all else.
Or, on the other side of the coin, the newcomer will say they sold their home in California for a million or two dollars and came here to “live the good life,” approximately two weeks per year. The other time they spend at their other homes dotted across the landscape, like tombstones marking the cemetery of this new phase of colonization in the American West.
Looking ahead, there are some devastating changes that will completely change downtown Sandpoint. The city of Sandpoint is preparing a complete transformation of First Avenue, opening up Gunning’s Alley (now called Farmin’s Landing, because that sounds classier, I guess) to connect the street and Sand Creek with some kind of park that will be the talk of the developers.
Ask most regular people if they think that’s necessary and most will say, “Meh, leave it the way it is.”
Therein lies the rub when it comes to resort towns: People are drawn to the quaint, simple nature of a place like Sandpoint, so they move there and quickly transform it into a sterile city that caters to retirees, wealthy second home owners and political extremists. Like Lenny in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, who loved his pet mice so much he crushed them to death in his hand, the powers that be have also squeezed Sandpoint in their palms to the point where the middle class folks who once lived here now find themselves pushed out to make room for the new Sandpointians, who couldn’t care less about our history unless they find some way to make money off of it.
We’re seeing the transformation in real time, and it’s not pretty. Restaurants that have fed locals for decades are closing their doors at an alarming rate, sometimes their buildings sold just hours after being listed (or even before they’re listed), gobbled up by mysterious investors from across the country.
Will it be another mom-and-pop restaurant moving in? Don’t count on it. The newest trend is bulldozing buildings and erecting condos in their place. After all, the developers will say, “There’s a housing shortage, right? People need somewhere to live.”
Not exactly. There isn’t a shortage of luxury condos or mansions in and around Sandpoint. Rich people will never have trouble finding a place to live here, or anywhere for that matter. It’s the middle and work class who should worry. The locals. The born-and-raised-here who would love nothing more than to remain in their hometown to raise their own families, but can’t because prevailing wages here have never supported $2,500 per month in rent.
We’re seeing it happen at our beloved Panida Theater as well, with some members of the board encouraging the sale of the Little Theater building to help fund the restoration needed on the main theater. The moment that building sells, it will be bulldozed and replaced with the retail-on-the-bottom, condos-on-the-top floors model. The fact that these same board members pushing for a sale know this is inevitable makes the decision even worse.
These new buildings can reach as high as 65 feet — about five stories — blotting out any remaining view of the mountains from the west side of First Avenue, and whatever the sale price generates for the Little Theater, it will dwindle and disappear in a short time, leaving the theater again asking for funds from the community in less than a decade, all while kicking themselves for giving up that valuable asset. I truly hope they don’t.
Short-term gains for long-term losses. That seems to be the new mantra for Sandpoint. Sell out now, because, “If I don’t do it, somebody else will,” as the justification goes. We’ve all heard it a thousand times before, but it still doesn’t make it right.
I wonder where all these people will be able to eat in future Sandpoint, when most of the restaurants have been replaced by luxury condos? I wonder who they’ll find to work at bars, restaurants and retail stores when most of the middle class is long gone, moved further out of town or out of the region entirely because they can’t afford it here anymore.
I wonder how many years will pass before they, too — the newcomers of today — will become the locals of tomorrow. They’ll peer over their condo rooftop verandas, sipping on wine delivered by drone from Amazon, and lament over how Sandpoint has changed from the quiet little place to which they moved for peace and beauty. They’ll gripe that their favorite restaurants have closed, that there’s nowhere to enjoy a good cocktail, that they don’t recognize anyone in town anymore. They’ll shake their heads at the greedy newcomers buying up property and flipping it to make a quick buck.
“If only there was something we could’ve done,” they’ll say, shaking their heads at the sidewalks clogged with tourists, extremists and con men, wondering why they don’t recognize their town anymore.
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