By Zach Hagadone
As has become our custom, we like to set aside some time and space at the end of the year to reflect on the events of the previous 12 months and offer some (sometimes baseless) predictions for what may await us in the future.
In the Dec. 31, 2020 edition of the Reader we correctly prophesied that the legal hubbub over the Festival at Sandpoint’s no-weapons policy would finally be put to rest in the city’s favor. That happened in June 2021, when a judge ruled that, “There are no genuine issues of material fact” as to whether the Festival or the city violated any laws or constitutional rights by allowing a weapons ban at War Memorial Field during the annual concert series.
We were also correct that local businesses would be faced with a dizzying number of challenges as the COVID-19 pandemic continued, and that some of our favorite and longstanding merchants wouldn’t make it through the end of the year.
While we got the broad strokes of that one right, we hadn’t anticipated the worker shortage and its subsequent ripple effects on supply chains and business both here and elsewhere.
As it turned out, that struggle locally had much to do with another prediction that we got (mostly) right: “More newcomers will stream into Sandpoint as a result of factors ranging from COVID-19 to remote work opportunities,” and result in “driving up prices in an already razor-thin residential market.”
The dramatic growth that has exploded over Bonner County in the past 20 or so months seemed to have ramped up by mid-year 2021, when prices — even for the most modest of properties — routinely topped $400,000 and frequently could be seen rising into the $600,000-$800,000 range. Heading into the end of the year, there are now multiple homes within Sandpoint city limits selling for prices in the millions of dollars, showing no signs of a downward trend (let’s call that prediction No. 1).
We were right to predict upward swings in both population and real estate prices — frankly it was pretty obvious — but we were wrong that new census data released in 2021 would push Sandpoint over the 10,000-population mark. We came darn close, though, with an overall 10-year increase of 17.3% to 8,639, but as city officials noted, those numbers don’t include the influx of newcomers who’ve come to the area during the pandemic era.
“[I]t feels like we’re at that 17.3% growth just from last year to this year,” City Administrator Jennifer Stapleton said at the time.
Surpassing the 10,000-population mark would have posed a serious challenge for the city of Sandpoint, as it would have meant losing resort city status and the ability to leverage funds through the resort city local option tax.
City Hall beat the drum hard for a 1% local option tax primarily to help fund design and construction of a range of projects described in the Parks and Recreation Master Plan, but the ballot measure didn’t achieve the necessary supermajority to pass. Here’s another prediction (which feels more than safe): the 1% LOT will return in some form sooner rather than later.
Other news items we speculated on in 2020 included major reconstruction work at City Beach and surrounds — which didn’t come to pass, but we predict will finally get underway in 2022 — and the heightening of “COVID unrest,” as we called it.
Regarding the latter, we were pretty spot on but didn’t suspect that much of that unrest in the Gem State would come from the Idaho Legislature, rather than citizen protest groups (maybe the latter were tuckered out after trying to destroy democracy in Washington D.C. last January).
Idaho lawmakers sat for an historically long session, convening in January but not fully adjourning until November — in the meantime seeing a cadre of particularly far-right legislators tilting at federal vaccine and testing requirements.
Despite a special session in November (and a failed attempt at one in September), not much came of those efforts: White Bird Republican Rep. Priscilla Giddings, who is running for lieutenant governor, was censured for her actions in publicizing the identity of a former staffer who accused disgraced former-Lewiston Republican Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger of rape, and state leaders drafted a letter to the Biden White House pledging to oppose vaccine and testing mandates.
That’s a handful of things that were — now what about the things that will (or might) be?
‘Turning downtown around’
As the city of Sandpoint proceeds with efforts to get its various Parks and Rec. Master Plan projects underway, we predict that the role of the so-called “Downtown Waterfront” area, roughly from Bridge to Main streets on the west bank of Sand Creek, will become the impetus for a major realignment of the downtown core itself.
Provided the city can secure the necessary funding to proceed — and gets the go-ahead from elected officials for a critical piece of code revision allowing construction further into the waterway — the creekside redevelopment would offer a range of pedestrian and watercraft amenities, from a plaza and gathering space to extended moorage and walkways.
More than that, though, we speculate that some major real estate deals will start to be made public pertaining to various buildings along the east side of First Avenue, starting immediately north of the Panida Theater and extending all the way to the Cedar Street Bridge.
High ranking city officials, both past and current, have already stated that huge changes are in the offing for downtown, with the goal of literally “turning downtown around” so that structures on the east side of First Avenue face both the street and Sand Creek.
On top of that fairly sweeping prediction we also anticipate some forward momentum on construction of a parking structure at the current city parking lot — something we speculated might happen in 2020, but received confirmation in summer 2021 is due to undergo study.
How much dirt will get turned on these projects is hard to guess, with so many disruptions to global supply chains affecting the availability and cost of building materials, but we feel confident that they will be big stories in the coming year.
Workforce and affordable housing
If you eavesdropped on local conversations in Sandpoint’s restaurants, bars and coffee shops at any point in 2021 you probably heard someone hashing out the sky-high prices for residential purchase and rent, and how it affects the ability of prevailing wage-earners to afford to live in the area.
What more than one local official has come right out and called a “crisis” over the past 12 months has clearly come home (literally and figuratively) for a wide swath of local workers — from restaurant and retail employees to managers at some of Sandpoint’s largest employers who have found their rentals either sold out from under them or their monthly payments go through the roof, and/or discover that they’ve been completely priced out of the market for purchasing a home anywhere within 100 miles of town.
Beyond the fact that it’s occurring, the major conversation point has been what to do about it. Developers point to a lack of housing supply driving up prices, and have pushed for an escalating number of new subdivisions pretty much anywhere they’ll fit, but have frequently run afoul of neighbors and even some Planning and Zoning commissioners who contend both that vanishingly few of those new units will in fact be “affordable” and that in a rush to solve the problem too many corners are being cut with city code.
Meanwhile, others argue that short-term rental conversions and out-of-area investor purchases should be regulated more tightly to protect existing housing stock, while still others suggest that employers themselves will need to step in and provide some relief for their workers if they want them to remain.
Schweitzer recently made news with the opening of a workforce housing development in town, further hinting that it’s just the first in a number of projects intended to provide below-market rate options for employees who need accommodations.
We predict that while the tension felt by housing-stressed residents isn’t going away, we also think Schweitzer won’t be the only big area employer to unveil something similar in 2022.
COVID politics persist
Every time we seem to think we’ve gotten a handle on the spread of COVID-19 infections, a new variant crops up and case numbers start to rise anew. While North Idaho hospitals have lifted crisis standards of care, Idaho remains designated as “high” community transmission by the CDC even as the state has the lowest vaccination rate in the country with only 51.9% of the population 5 years and older having been fully vaccinated. In the Panhandle Health District, that number is even lower, with only 42% of the population aged 5 and older receiving full vaccination and 39.5% having also received a booster shot.
Given this data, it seems like a no-brainer to predict that we won’t see the “end” of the pandemic in 2022 and should plan on hearing a lot more about federal vaccine requirements in the next few months.
Of course, this will translate into another season of storm and fury in the Idaho Legislature, as lawmakers return from their rump session in November full of vigor to be seen fighting the feds — especially four months ahead of what will be a raucous primary election in May 2022.
As noted above, the May 2022 primary — specifically the Idaho Republican primary — will be off the chain. With a deep slate of candidates vying for statewide offices, the runup to Election Day has and will continue to be dominated by the contest between incumbent Gov. Brad Little and his insurgent Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, who has launched a challenge for Little’s job from the far reaches of their shared party’s right wing. Next to that race in terms of rhetoric is between House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, and White Bird Republican Rep. Giddings for the lieutenant governor’s office.
In both cases the outcome of the primary will speak volumes about the various rifts within the Idaho GOP: the traditionalists represented by Little and Bedke and the firebrand ultra-conservatives like McGeachin and Giddings. (This is not to mention the effects on the race of other gubernatorial candidates like celebrity anti-government activist Ammon Bundy and Bonner County Commissioner Steve Bradshaw, whose constituencies may find themselves overlapping on many key issues.)
Ultimately, we predict that Idaho GOP unity will be preserved as an increasing number of Republicans from the rock-ribbed old guard to the self-described “reasonable” moderates have come to be almost existentially worried about the outsized influence exerted by libertarian think tank/lobby group Idaho Freedom Foundation and its partisans in the House and Senate.
In fact, we predict the May 2022 primary will be as much a referendum on IFF’s chilly grip on the Legislature as it is on the candidates themselves.
That said, we anticipate Little and Bedke will go on not only to secure their party’s nomination, but win in November — though, in an interesting twist, the November partisan contest will be between Little and Sandpoint’s own Mayor Shelby Rognstad, who will almost certainly be the Idaho Democratic contender for governor (which also brings us to another prediction that it won’t be Rognstad’s last foray into state-level politics).
In an effort to inject a little levity into this exercise — though, honestly, there wasn’t a whole lot to be light-hearted about from the first week of January 2021 onward — here are a few random predictions:
• Betty White will continue to grace us with her presence until at least 2023.
• There will be one, maybe two ultra-billionaires who do not go to space in 2022.
• Amazon will rebrand itself as Leviathan, Apple will change its name to iBuy and all video on demand streaming services will be rolled into one platform called YouBinge.
• New conspiracies in 2022: the little blue discs you put in your toilet tank are actually tracking devices; using your turn signal broadcasts your VIN to the receptors installed on smart garbage cans, where the data is harvested for targeted telemarketing by vehicle warranty companies; rubbing sidewalk ice melt on your skin prevents the spread of a host of viruses; the last real apples disappeared in the early-2000s when Big Pharma replaced them with lab-produced facsimiles that enlarge the amygdala in order to trigger fear response.
• Elon Musk will bare knuckle box Bernie Sanders, but Bernie Sanders will win.
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