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On the Agenda In the Panhandle: Youth, Growth & Silver

Hot Metal Prices Spur Mines in Cleaned-up Valley

 
  YOUR OWN PRIVATE IDAHO: Development along Lake Pend Oreille is luring newcomers — and new money — to Sandpoint.

Asuccessful, decades-long environmental cleanup effort has Kellogg, in Idaho’s Silver Valley, booming.

Much of Kellogg’s growth has been in housing, spurred by expansions at the nearby Silver Mountain ski resort. Ward Well, an economic development specialist at the Silver Valley Economic Development Corp., says home prices in the valley are comparable to those in ritzier Coeur d’Alene. An investment firm has also purchased a big chunk of land known as the Box, a 21-square mile area formerly contaminated from a century of mining and smelting. Plans include condos, a hotel and a car lot.

Unemployment, in the double digits since the ’90s, has dropped to about 5 percent, and an upswing in silver prices has meant some of the mines are opening again.

Well isn’t worried about a return to the bad-old days though — no smelting will take place in the valley and the EPA is “pretty much living in everyone’s backyards,” he says. He’s more concerned with attracting mechanics, machinists and others to support the new mines.

It’s the Little Things

 
  BRING ON THE SALAD: Litehouse dressing is an economic mainstay, with 350 employees in Sandpoint. Photos by Atom Welch.

The decline and near demise in the 1980s and ’90s of logging and mining in North Idaho left a landscape of company towns — Sandpoint, Priest River and Clark Fork among them — almost bereft of companies.

The towns searched for new industries and leveraged the area’s newfound resort profile with hopes of establishing a diverse and more stable economic base.

“If you go back to 2000, and you compare Bonner County to the rest of the state, we’ve grown manufacturing jobs faster and added more manufacturing jobs than anywhere else,” says Karl Dye, the president of the Bonner County Economic Development Corp.

Dye points to long-time local heavyweights like Litehouse Foods, which employs about 350 workers in Sandpoint, as well as relative newcomers like Cascade Toboggan, Max Custom Tie-Downs and the up-and-coming Quest Aircraft, which is hoping to expand its workforce from 190 to about 400 by 2012.

Ollie This

 
  GRIP IT AND RIP IT: Skateparks have become common features as towns seek ways to keep the kids entertained.

Old ladies and Mercedes” is a phrase sometimes used to describe resort town demographics.

The phrase could also describe the focus of attention by resort town officials, but some towns have turned their attention to younger residents — as a way to attract and keep families.

Sandpoint has a new $130,000 skate park designed by the firm Dreamland and paid for by donations. (The city maintains the park at a cost of about $500 a year.)

Skateparks are popping up across the rural Mountain West, providing an alternative to more devious pastimes, and keeping skaters off the streets where they damage picturesque downtowns and bug the tourists. Priest River has a park, too, as do towns as small as St. Ignatius, Montana, population 788.

Sandpoint Parks & Recreation director Kim Woodruff says the park has been a boon to community togetherness.

“It’s a way of communicating: ‘Hey, we value your kids,'” Woodruff says.

Get a Degree

Idaho’s five northernmost counties have boomed in almost every category over the past two decades, with one notable exception: higher education.

Until late last year, North Idaho seemed on the fast track to hosting a University of Idaho campus in Ponderay, north of Sandpoint.

The campus and another high school were to be built on 70 acres of university-owned land, but plans were shelved after the nonprofit backer, the Wild Rose Foundation, couldn’t produce enough cash from investments. Wild Rose is operated, and largely funded, by Coldwater Creek founder and former CEO Dennis Pence. (His investments are mostly Coldwater Creek stock, the value of which has plummeted in recent months.)

Still, the yet-to-be campus has a vice president, Larry Branen, who says the plans are merely on hiatus, and could restart once the foundation finds itself in better fiscal shape. If that happens, it could be a short three years before the facility opens its doors.

Growing Up, in More Ways Than One

 
  A NORTH IDAHO SKYSCRAPER: The new bank building is the first to take advantage of a controversial ordinance raising height restrictions in Sandpoint.

It’s a story told all over the West: A sleepy little town attracts tourists and newcomers. Traffic worsens. Property values climb. Residents fret about their town’s changing culture.

In Sandpoint, height restrictions on buildings became a flashpoint for this cultural angst.

The issue arose in early 2005, when the city considered an ordinance to increase the allowable building height from 45 to 60 feet.

Seem like a paltry difference? Not to Sandpoint.

The additional height amounted to an affront to Helen Newton, a city councilmember and lifelong Sandpoint resident. The change had the potential to forever alter the way Sandpoint looked, she said, and represented yet another concession to the new elites in this old mill town with working class roots.

The fight against the ordinance eventually failed, but only one developer has taken advantage of the new rules: Sandpoint’s newest, tallest structure is the unfinished Panhandle State Bank.

Newton and her allies achieved a more lasting victory, though. Sandpoint residents have begun to revise local comprehensive plans, addressing everything from infrastructure to population density. A populist flavor is at the heart of the effort.

“The last thing I want to see for Sandpoint is an elitist community,” Newton says.

–Zach Hagadone writes from Boise, Idaho

For more from the Spring 2008 issue of The New West magazine, including other stories about North Idaho, visit www.newwest.net/magazine.

About Courtney Lowery

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