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Tourists flock here despite downturn

A recession? You could have fooled those in downtown Sandpoint during this past month.

With activities such as artist tours, an arts and crafts fair, a fun run and of course the Festival at Sandpoint, the streets were backed up, the parking lots were full and the majority of those driving through the downtown corridor had out-of-state license plates.

It was a welcome sight for what many feared would be a slow tourist season in this resort community.

Gloria Waterhouse, owner of the Inn at Sand Creek, said it’s been an exceptional year for her business. She credits that in part to the fact that couples, especially nonresidents, are choosing Sandpoint as a beautiful setting for their destination weddings.

Waterhouse said the Inn’s suites have been at maximum capacity nearly every weekend.

Waterhouse also owns the Sand Creek Grill, which closed last year, but has been the sight of many wedding receptions and ceremonies this summer.

It’s not just the hospitality industry that has been successful this summer in Sandpoint — retail sales, although slower, are still better than expected.

Pend d’Oreille Winery in downtown Sandpoint is a favorite stop for many tourists. Owner Steve Meyer said that while this year’s sale of merchandise has slowed, wine sales stayed steady or increased modestly.

While Meyer says that the beauty of Sandpoint as well as the arts community and outstanding restaurants will always attract tourists, he credits the Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce with continuing to market Sandpoint as a destination.

“The Tourism Committee of the Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce has done a great job of pulling together the major players in the tourism business which has really helped to maintain the Sandpoint brand as a sure bet for limited tourism dollars,” said Meyer.

Ray Smith, owner of Athlete’s Choice in downtown Sandpoint, said that while his business has slowed down from last summer’s pace, the tourists and locals have continued to visit.

“The majority (of the tourists) are from Canada,” said Smith. “We have a great customer base from there who visit us every year.”

Smith said the opening of a Big 5 in Sandpoint does not seem to have affected his store.

“We have not had to lay off any employees for this summer,” said Smith. “Our profits started dipping due to the economy before Big 5 moved in, and we carry a lot of different things than Big 5 so we are not really in direct competition with them.”

Grant Merwin, owner of Merwin’s Hardware, knows what it is like to have a big box store threaten one’s livelihood. A few years ago Home Depot opened in nearby Ponderay, but Merwin said Sandpoint residents have remained loyal to the locally owned store. So when the economy started taking a downturn, Merwin said he was surprised to hear rumors circulating that his store was closing its doors.

“That is totally false,” said Merwin. “We are alive and well and moving in a positive direction.”

Merwin did have to lay off one of his employees and has registered about a 20 percent decrease in sales this year, in part due to the lack of construction in the area and the economic status of the entire country. “We cut our inventory down so instead of carrying 12 of a certain item, we now may carry six of that item,” said Merwin. “We are running a lot more efficient now.”