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Panhandle Boom Shows Signs Of Cooling

Fewer customers are pumping gas and downing Ding Dongs at Robert D’Elseaux’s Chevron station on Northwest Boulevard.

D’Elseaux talks about the local economy with his customers all the time. And they’re singing in chorus these days: North Idaho is slowing down.

“I just talked to two of my friends who are building contractors who have left town,” he said, tamping out a cigarette during his coffee break outside the station. “You can sure tell the housing market has slowed down, way down.”

Home sales this year are 10 percent lower than 1994’s record pace, according to the Coeur d’Alene Multiple Listing Association. Two weeks ago, 100 full-time and 30 temporary workers lost their jobs at Keystone Lighting in Hayden Lake.

Signs of slower growth are popping up in Kootenai County like dandelions in May.

Now, a broad measure of goods sold in the Panhandle is losing steam. For the first three months of the year, taxable sales - a measure of consumer spending that has skyrocketed every year this decade - barely kept pace with 1994.

Until now, annual sales in the 1990s have increased by roughly 12 percent.

For Kootenai County, taxable sales for the first quarter of the year barely increased 2 percent. For the Panhandle as a whole, sales were up just a fraction of 1 percent.

Taxable sales include just about everything sold with the exception of wholesale items and government purchases. The quarterly tax numbers are a pulse of economic activity that has been racing since 1990.

A meager sales pace for the first quarter seems to contradict Idaho’s placement on the honor roll of a Washington, D.C.based think tank’s economic report. According to a Wednesday report by Corporation for Enterprise Development, only Colorado has a healthier economy than Idaho.

But that report looks only at 1994 economic data. Almost halfway through 1995, North Idaho’s economic indicators aren’t as strong.

Booming southern Idaho has a large say in the state’s economic strength. But North Idaho - dependent on resource-based industries, tourism and a growing manufacturing base - remains in the shadow of Boise giants Micron Technology Inc. and other large Idaho companies.

Taxable sales have made huge jumps each year in Kootenai County and in the Panhandle, as much as 25 percent in some years. That’s why a lackluster quarter may foreshadow a slowdown in the economy.

Fickle weather during the first three months of 1995 appears to be partially to blame for the weaker sales numbers, said Kathryn Tacke, labor analyst for the Idaho Department of Employment.

That’s because weather hampers construction and logging, two of the region’s biggest economic sectors.

Taxable sales from construction activity fell 13 percent in Kootenai County compared with first quarter 1994. Some specialized building supply categories fell dramatically. Sales of floor coverings and draperies fell 58 percent, for example.

Sales of lumber and other wood products fell 16 percent compared with the same quarter last year. Sawmills blame a sluggish lumber market.

Despite a lackluster end to the winter skiing season, receipts for hotel and motel lodgings increased 8 percent for the first quarter of 1995.

However, that partially reflects the addition of new hotel rooms in Coeur d’Alene. Added competition diluted profits for hoteliers, said Dick Scheets, general manager of the Shilo Inn on Appleway in Coeur d’Alene.

“Most of the hotel owners I talked with yesterday said their first quarters were down,” Scheets said. “It’s most likely just the fact that the same number of people are coming here, but there’s more rooms thinning it out.”

Taxable sales in the Panhandle’s next largest county, Bonner, actually fell for the first time this decade. Sales there were off by roughly 0.5 percent from the first quarter of 1994.

Fewer car sales contributed to the weaker numbers. Car sales fell 30 percent from the first quarter of 1994. But that drop was partially made up by a two-thirds increase in the sales of snowmobiles and boats.

Taxable sales from recreation areas, including Schweitzer Mountain Resort, fell 9 percent from first quarter last year. The resort fell slightly short of its projections for skier visits, said Bill Mullane, communications manager for the resort.

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