Kevin Watson, a member of Sandpoint’s Human Rights Coalition, winces when he reads a letter from a romance-adventure novelist.
The man wanted to write a book and base the characters in Sandpoint. But his publisher nixed the idea, saying it wouldn’t work because the town’s image is marred by racism.
“Any hero from those parts would likely have to be anti-black, anti-woman, anti-gay, bigoted, fascist and a white supremacist,” Watson read from the letter.
National media attention, spotlighting ex-Los Angeles police detective Mark Fuhrman’s move here and a fringe of racist residents, has left a scarlet letter stitched to this town’s reputation. It’s a capital “B” for bigots.
“This seems to keep happening to us. Every time we turn around, there is something else negative printed,” said chamber of commerce Executive Director Jonathan Coe.
In the past six months, he has received a handful of letters from people who say they won’t visit Sandpoint, mainly because of publicity about white supremacists, neo-Nazis and Fuhrman.
“That hurts,” Coe said.
It’s a stigma the town is fighting, and it was the reason for a gathering of about 60 business people and human rights activists here Thursday. Speakers included Bill Wassmuth, executive director of the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment, and Marshall Mend, a Kootenai County human rights activist.
The goal was to let business owners know that the image of racism still lingers and is affecting the city’s economy. The group was urged to support human rights groups, speak out against racism and hire and recruit minorities.
“How many tourists didn’t come to Sandpoint, Coeur d’Alene or Idaho because of our racist image?” Mend asked. “Who knows how much it’s cost us? Personally, I think it’s in the millions. There is business that we have lost that we will never really know about.
“We do not live in an all-white world,” he said. “We need to make our communities look like what we are supposed to be.”
What others read and see on television about North Idaho is reality, Mend said, telling the group it will take years, not months to change Sandpoint’s image.
The city is not just dealing with an image problem, Wassmuth added. Sandpoint has pockets of racists, bigots and intolerance, just like every other city.
“Does that mean it’s a haven for bigots? Certainly not,” he said. “But how we change both image and reality is by doing things, not by just waiting for it to go away.”
That is the message Coe wanted business leaders to hear. Most are unaware, he said, of the ongoing sullying of Sandpoint’s reputation and its affect on the economy.
“I can’t sit down and say we are down 25 percent in tourism due to bad publicity, but clearly it is having an impact,” Coe said. “We see that in the letters we get.”
Watson noted other examples, including one in “Snow Country” magazine’s December issue.
A couple wrote about hunting for a ski town to move to. Sandpoint was on their list, but they were concerned about its reputation as a “white supremacist hot bed.” They chose another area to live.
In a travel guide popular with foreigners, North Idaho was noted as a enclave of neo-Nazis, mentioning Randy Weaver and Bo Gritz.
It described southeastern Idaho as Mormon farm towns, Boise full of youthful, trend-seeking crowds and the Panhandle as Aryan Nations headquarters.
“You think you could find something better in the Panhandle than the Aryan Nations,” Watson said. “If this is what foreign visitors are looking at, then it really doesn’t help our cause.”
Parade Magazine is expected to run a piece on Sandpoint and its image problem in a few months. CNN crews recently showed up for a story on an anti-Semitic ministry based in Sandpoint. A Dutch television crew and writer for Women’s Day also are putting together stories on the city and its racist residents.
“We believe the national press has exaggerated the number of racists up here, but there is some grain of truth in there and we can’t deny it,” Watson said. “We have to address our image problem by addressing that core issue.”