Some people scoffed when this town of 500 residents posted its motto - “Ponderay, a little city with a big future” - at its city limits.
Few are laughing at the slogan now.
Ponderay has sprouted an enviable and profitable commercial district.
It started about four years ago when Kmart moved in. An enormous Wal-Mart is going up nearby and a Burger King and Perfection Tire store are next in line.
Two banks, including a branch of Sandpoint’s Panhandle State Bank, are eyeing sites in this little city, as is a major grocery store chain.
“About the time we adopted our slogan, people could see the handwriting on the wall, that development was coming to Ponderay,” said Mayor James Hunt. “Although it has been slow in the past, growth was always in the cards for this town.”
Ponderay has even started to steal some businesses from Sandpoint, its neighbor to the west.
The Cenex gas station and farm store, as well as a downtown dental practice, will move out of Sandpoint to Ponderay next year.
Kentucky Fried Chicken already left for Ponderay’s greener pastures, as did Sandpoint Furniture.
“We are going to continue to grow and have businesses move out here because Sandpoint doesn’t have room downtown and they don’t have parking,” Hunt said.
Ponderay, which sits on four square miles of land, has plenty of both. It also has land that was zoned commercial years ago to make it easy for businesses to locate near U.S. Highway 95 and state Highway 200.
The explosive growth is starting to make Sandpoint a little nervous.
“There’s a level of concern, especially because of some of the business movement out there,” said David Sawyer, Sandpoint’s mayor-elect.
“What I’m hoping the development out there does is galvanize us and we take a hard look at our downtown and its five- to 10-year future.”
Neither Hunt nor Sawyer wants to see the towns develop a competitive relationship.
“We need to sit down and figure out how we can work together, because Sandpoint is not going to be the home of mega-malls and Ponderay is not going to be the home of City Beach,” Sawyer said. “We should link up, work cooperatively, so we don’t compete for the same pot of dollars.”
Sandpoint officials haven’t always felt that way. The two towns feuded when the Bonner Mall was built in Ponderay in the early 1980s. Since then there have been squabbles over annexation of land and even water, which Sandpoint supplies to Ponderay.
“Working together is something we should have done when the mall went in, instead of having this us-versus-them attitude,” said Dick Hutter, chairman of Ponderay’s planning and zoning board. “We can co-exist and draw people to the area that will benefit both towns.”
Hunt, a former Sandpoint mayor himself, said he foresees an eventual merger of Sandpoint, Ponderay and even Dover and Kootenai.
“It won’t make sense to have all these different entities providing separate services like water, sewer, fire and police.”
In the meantime, Ponderay is enjoying the spoils of growth. The city’s budget grew from a measly $4,000 in the early 1980s to nearly $357,000 this year. About 75 percent of all the city’s property taxes are generated by commercial and industrial property.
“We are not rich by any means,” said city clerk Nancy Piatt. “But we aren’t doing too bad either.”
The town’s come a long way in 15 years, when the mayor’s office was no bigger than a privy. Copies were made at a local business because the city couldn’t afford its own machine. And Palmer Fiksdal won the mayoral seat as a write-in candidate by one vote because he voted for himself.
The last few years, Ponderay built a new $100,000 City Hall, paved the dirt and gravel city streets and started its own police department.
“We spent more paving our streets last year than our total city budget was in 1990,” Piatt said, noting the budget then was $89,000.
This year, 49 building permits were issued, almost double from four years ago. The estimated value on Wal-Mart’s building permit alone was $2.8 million. All of 1994 building permits combined totaled only $990,773.
On the down side, growth has meant an increase in taxes for Ponderay residents. Until a few years ago, they didn’t pay any city taxes. The town lived off its allotment from county and state revenues.
“It’s my guess we will see enough commercial growth in the next five years that residents’ taxes will start to drop,” Hutter said. “We are not just interested in trying to make a buck out here. We want things done right.”
Officials are concerned with keeping commercial success from encroaching on the rural lifestyle.
“The city is pretty content at this point,” Hutter said. “We don’t want to see growth go north of where it is now. We are vehement about not creating a commercial strip along the highway like the one in Coeur d’Alene.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo; map of Ponderay area