The Face of Sandpoint, It's A-Changing

New developments promise to bring big changes to town

by Billie Jean Plaster

As consistent growth brings more people to live here each year, the face of Sandpoint is changing. Indeed, from a town that boasted only two stoplights for more than decade, Sandpoint in the past two years has ballooned into an eight-light town ­ with two more going up this year.

Stoplights, of course, are an imprecise way to measure growth and the changes it brings. But statistics back them up.

With about 5,600 people, Sandpoint is still only the 22nd largest city in a state of little more than 1 million people. However, this northern tip of Idaho is attracting more than its share of the state's growth. Between 1980 and 1995 Bonner County's population jumped nearly 32 percent, from 24,163 to 31,890, making it the 8th fastest growing of the state's 44 counties.

The growth is creating challenges. "Sandpoint's at a real crossroads now," says Sandpoint Planning Director Kevin Clegg. "While we still have small-town charm, if we're not able to recognize those qualities, we'll lose them. We have a chance to enhance those qualities and avoid having our sense of place taken away."

While growth often brings unpleasant changes ­ stoplights among them ­ many of the public projects and developments under way in Sandpoint hold the promise of enhancing the town.

Charlie Parrish, Evergreen Realty broker and president of Bonner County Association of Realtors, points out that growth and an expanding employment base helps business to flourish. That increases property values for commercial and residential alike, and provides the fuel for the list of major projects that are inevitably changing the face of Sandpoint. Following are descriptions and discussion of some of them:

Highway 95 bypass: This complicated project to route highway traffic around the downtown core has been argued for decades, but it looks official now that an environmental impact statement is being finalized. The Idaho Transportation Department plans to begin it sometime after 2002. The route will run up the Sand Creek peninsula between City Beach and the downtown, and has met significant opposition from residents who fear it will harm Sandpoint's waterfront. However, a group of local leaders, the Bonner County Advisory Transportation Team, lists this project as their No. 1 priority and hope to be involved in design issues to mitigate its impact. "It's critical now that communities be involved in the design of the bypass," says BCATT Chairman Jonathan Coe. Bumper-to-bumper traffic downtown the past several summers had given more urgency to the project. "(A bypass) would certainly relieve downtown of that traffic, especially the trucks that go through from Canada," said ITD Board Member John McHugh. The project's cost is estimated in excess of $20 million.

Waterfront boardwalk: With the restoration of the former Sandpoint Marina, this boardwalk proposed along Sand Creek downtown has become much more likely. Businessman Ralph Sletager, who bought the former marina and developed it into the Old Power House mall, has already built the beginning of the boardwalk. Sletager hopes other property owners will help extend the walk along the west bank of Sand Creek all the way to the Cedar Street Bridge, home to the major retailer Coldwater Creek. Many have already joined in to support the project. "The lake and our waterways distinguish Sandpoint from thousands of miles of beautiful Rocky Mountains," Sletager said. "To make ourselves stand out, we have to capitalize on that." The walk and a green belt could be space for community events.

Bike path system: North Idaho Pathways formed in 1994 with the goal to create a network of bike and pedestrian paths linking nearby communities to Sandpoint. They have nearly completed their first objective ­ a path from Sagle Road four miles north to the Pedestrian Long Bridge ­ with countless donations of time, material and money, along with an $89,000 grant. Spokeswoman Angela Potts said her group is also working closely with the ITD to convert recently vacated railroad property along Highway 2 west to Dover into another path. And they're planning a bike route/path through town that would run through Sandpoint to Ponderay and Kootenai. The path along Highway 2 would turn north on Division Street, turn east on Larch, then north on Boyer to the University of Idaho Extension property. The group hopes to get a right-of-way from UI to cross that property and reach Sand Creek near the present dilapidated "Popsicle Bridge," which is already slated for replacement. Then it's a short distance to Highway 95, where a path could then reach Kootenai Cut-off Road and follow it to Highway 200.

Fifth Avenue Park/Heritage Center: With the recent removal of Union Pacific Railroad tracks along Fifth Avenue, the vacated railway is prime property for a green belt corridor. Such a development could help link businesses from First Avenue to Fifth Avenue, acting as another anchor for the downtown core. An advisory group has formed to work on plans with the ITD, which will purchase the railroad property in town following cleanup work. According to Kerby Cole, ITD project development engineer, there's room to accommodate a path and widen the present route of Highway 95 through town. The advisory group is also exploring construction of a heritage center, where historical photos and relics could be on display.

Renovation of old Sandpoint High School: The historic building at Euclid and Pine has been vacant since 1980. In 1994 it was acquired by a family trust administered by developer Brent Baker. Baker also bought the old school's adjoining annex and renovated it into a retail center known as the Pine Street Annex. Baker says he doesn't want to see the old school torn down or developed into something incompatible with the Annex. He is pursuing investors to start an estimated $2 million renovation in a couple years ­ hopefully to become a home for arts organizations or an educational facility. "A college presence would be the biggest asset to the community," Baker said. However, barring that route, it's possible the building could become commercial space or even high-end condominiums. ·

Billie Jean Plaster is a Sandpoint Magazine staffer currently involved in her own real estate project, a home addition.

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