The changing faces of Sandpoint

Our town has endured many eras over the years — some good, some not so good

By Ben Olson
Reader Staff

Lao Tzu’s take on change remains just as true today as it was 2,500 years ago when he wrote, “If you do not change direction, you might end up where you are heading.”

Around the same time, but far away from China, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus offered his own wisdom on the subject: “There is nothing permanent except change.”

In Sandpoint, change is often viewed with ample skepticism, stubborn denial and incessant griping, usually because it is accompanied by substantial growth. I know this because I’m usually the one griping about it.

If polled, most North Idaho residents would probably agree they aren’t interested in sweeping changes to the small towns we live in and love, but change is indeed inevitable. As more people discover our small corner of the world, they each add their own flavor to the proverbial soup. Sometimes they add too much salt, sometimes they add a sprig of zesty herbs unlocking a new taste. But they all change the flavor of what was once there before, and that’s not always a bad thing. 

Sandpoint, like any other small town with character, has cycled through many eras over the generations. We started as a rough-and-ready railroad siding, dominated by timber harvesting and mining interests. We later evolved into a bonafide town, attracting homesteaders who raised their families here and sought to improve the quality of life for fellow residents. After mining and timber interests waned in the mid-20th century, tourism began to be seen as the next driving force to bring dollars to our community. A ski hill was opened atop Schweitzer Mountain, cabins and touring hotels appeared around Sandpoint to provide places of respite for motorists eager to seek the unfamiliar country they may have heard about from friends and family.

The corner of First Ave. and Main St. in Sandpoint, taken about 100 years apart. Historic photo courtesy Bonner Co. Museum. Current photo by Ben Olson.

In the interest of focusing on changes I’ve seen in my four decades living in this town, I’d like to take a brief stroll through some of the eras that have come and gone in Sandpoint, starting in the 1970s.


A nationwide migration known as the Back to the Land movement began to see large numbers of people choosing to move out of urbanized areas to seek quieter, more self-sustaining lifestyles in the rural parts of our nation. By the 1970s, the results of this movement began to be evident in North Idaho with an increased number of so-called “hippies” and “free-thinkers” sharing space with the old guard loggers and farmers of the region. While clashes were inevitable, many longtime Sandpointians refer to a begrudging acceptance of two disparate ideologies because, at heart, many of their desires for simple living, self-sustaining lifestyles and rural environs were commonly shared.

With the influx of new faces came the introduction of culture in Sandpoint. A Farmers’ Market was established, which still flourishes to this day. Events such as the Arts and Crafts Fair, the Festival at Sandpoint and Lost in the ’50s took root and returned every year, showcasing the creative output of the new residents — as well as those of the longtime families who have lived here for generations.

Sandpoint in the 1980s was a funky place, dominated by lots of public art, local theater troupes and eccentric events catering to a more urbane demographic of residents. Coupled with the slow downfall of the timber industry, it became evident by city leaders that tourism would indeed be the driving force to Sandpoint’s economy, and the town began courting the deep pockets of tourists more than ever before. 

This era served as a turning point for Sandpoint, with many of the changes viewed favorably since they both increased the potential for tourist dollars in Sandpoint, but also gave residents the option for fun activities which weren’t available before. The term “amenity migrant” could generally describe other newcomers to the area, who were seeking both a quiet small town in which to live and also a town which was surrounded by natural amenities to enrich their lives — including everything from hunting and fishing to skiing.


Around the start of the 1990s, North Idaho began morphing politically into the region it resembles today, punctuated by a large influx of conservatives who were often wary of the government and overly regulative policies they fled from other parts of the west. It was a decade when national politics came home to roost, so to speak, especially in 1992, when the standoff at Ruby Ridge served as a flashpoint for anti-government activists around the country. Many hailed this event as a rallying cry for fellow Americans to resist “big government” by seeking out conservative enclaves throughout the west where they could seek “like-minded” individuals to consort with.

Besides Ruby Ridge, there were a number of troubling years in North Idaho that helped to further this mentality, including the rise and fall of the Aryan Nations compound under neo-Nazi Richard Butler in Hayden, as well as a rise in the so-called “militia movement” which saw an increased number of North Idahoans and Montanans joining right wing militias.

This era of increased nativism was fueled by an economic scenario which brought about wide closures of timber mills, which was often blamed on NAFTA and then-president Bill Clinton. 


After the turbulent 1990s, Sandpoint began to thrive in the early 2000s. There was an explosion of arts and culture that went hand-in-hand with a real estate boom, as wealthy individuals settled in for yet another round of increased growth. Residents watched with dismay as retail stores along First Avenue fell one by one, morphing into real estate offices. Big developments like the Seasons at Sandpoint and Dover Bay dramatically changed the landscape of Sandpoint, causing many residents to voice their fears about the “Aspenization” of resort towns like Sandpoint in other parts of the west. “It can happen here, too,” was the rallying cry, as rampant growth began testing the patience of longtime locals who largely wanted the town to remain the same as the one in which they grew up.

This period also served as a turning point in Sandpoint, when the inevitable resort town lifestyle was often at odds with the desires of the population to “keep it secret” to avoid Sandpoint becoming “just another tourist town with a lake and a ski hill.”


It’s hard to see a silver lining to a worldwide recession like what happened in 2007-2009, with housing markets collapsing and many Americans losing their homes to foreclosure after the bubble burst. But in Sandpoint, the Great Recession is largely responsible for this cooling down period of years when the sometimes greedy visions of the future butted up sharply against the chilly reality of a nation in an economic downturn. 

Many fly-by-night real estate offices closed their doors as home prices tanked. A deeper connection between locals was evident around Sandpoint, with many younger residents pushing back against the gilded future developers and speculators promised to newcomers.

It’s also worth noting that Sandpoint’s comprehensive plan was developed in this era, which sought to define the direction the town would take in the coming decades.


In this era, Sandpoint endured rampant growth and change after the effects of the recession began to wane in earnest. Like the 1990s, nationwide politics played a part in driving another round of conservative migration to North Idaho, with targeted advertising campaigns in other states encouraging conservatives to leave the cities to live in Idaho. Sandpoint has always been marketed outside our region, but a more aggressive campaign began, labeling North Idaho as a “haven” for white, Christian conservatives who were fed up with their own states’ politics.

The influx of newcomers was largely already happening when COVID-19 reared its ugly head in 2020, causing many to wonder if this global pandemic would again curtail the rising costs of housing in North Idaho to return to a more “local friendly” market that catered to everyday people who wanted to buy their first homes and continue living in their hometown. Needless to say, this isn’t what happened at all.

The growth experienced during COVID has almost become the stuff of legend. After the former “quiet era” dissolved, this new turning point era began seeing the largest influx of newcomers to our region in recorded history. The census data doesn’t even show the reality of how many new families moved to North Idaho since it only accounts for a small portion of 2020, but by most accounts, we are now experiencing the aftermath of such rampant growth in such a short period of time.

Large housing developments are popping up around the county like mushrooms, some offering what they refer to as “affordable housing” at prices that have effectively shut out locals from the market as homes are gobbled up by out-of-towners at a record pace. With the addition of hundreds of homes, the infrastructure of the surrounding areas will need to keep up with the added tires on the roads, sewage in the pipes and water consumption, to name just a few.

More than any time in recent history, Sandpointians have expressed anxiety about what such a large influx of people and infrastructure means to Sandpoint. With changing demographics comes a change in attitudes throughout the region. Social media forums and barrooms alike are filled with conversations between locals griping about the “new meanness” that is evident throughout town. Restaurant workers often complain about rude, self-entitled customers who make their jobs more difficult, especially during times of staff shortages and supply chain issues. A housing market catered to rich, out-of-town emigrants has seen countless working class Sandpointians unable to purchase their first home, or in some cases, evicted from long-term rentals because landlords chose to cash in on the market by increasing rents or selling their homes.

In more recent times, the consequences of this new reality have been noticed. Longtime restaurants and businesses have elected to close up shop in increasing numbers, furthering the feeling by many that they no longer have a place here in Sandpoint.

The era we are currently living under is arguably the biggest turning point we’ve experienced here in Sandpoint’s recent history. Change is always a part of life, especially when living in an attractive location such as North Idaho, but the recent influx of attitudes and monetary wealth not centered — nor reliant — on the local economy will prove to be our biggest struggle to overcome until the next period of respite, if there will be one.

Perhaps it’s best to look to David Bowie for a final word on the subject, taken from his song “Changes” with his cryptic line: “Time may change me / but I can’t trace time.” 

We are all changed over time, for good or ill, and those changes do have an effect on who we are, what we believe and what we choose to dedicate our lives to. We all want our own private Idaho, but I think what Bowie’s line refers to is how we’ll all react when it’s our time to be on the maligned side of the generational changes that occur in our lifetimes. We can push against change and dig our heels in the sand while the world spins us asunder. Or we can choose to embrace the change, while also putting in a concerted effort to ensure those changes are ones that benefit our community and improve our quality of life, instead of pushing us out to make room for the new.

As with everything in life, perhaps the answer lies somewhere in the middle.

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