August 29, 2010 in Idaho Voices

Mayor: Proactive economic approach keeps Sandpoint strong

Patty Hutchens
 

According to Sandpoint Mayor Gretchen Hellar, if one were to ask members of this community how they thought the Sandpoint economy was faring, the answers would be diverse.

“Every citizen would give you a different description as to the state of the city,” Hellar recently told a crowd gathered for the monthly Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

But according to Hellar, who prefers to see the glass as half full, Sandpoint is weathering the economic storm much better than other towns. She attributes that in part to the fact that Sandpoint has taken a proactive approach.

“To tighten our belts and do nothing would be a sure sign of failure,” said Hellar. Instead, the mayor said it has been important to collaborate with surrounding cities, such as Dover, Ponderay and Kootenai, as well as community organizations to make better use of Sandpoint’s existing resources.

“We need to enhance the special qualities we have and protect those that are vulnerable,” said Hellar.

According to the mayor, it was important to look at the city’s policies and procedures when planning the approach Sandpoint would take to meet the economic challenges so many towns face.

“City policies and procedures need to be creative, flexible and responsive to changes,” said Hellar. “They have to be daring.”

But she warned that to move forward relying solely upon faith and the adage of “if they build it they will come” would be a big mistake.

Hellar expressed optimism when she quoted John McCain saying, “The fundamentals of our economy are sound,” and provided statistics to support her statement.

According to Hellar there have been 107 new business registrations in the city of Sandpoint so far this year. And citing information provided by Sandpoint’s Downtown Business Association, Hellar said there have been 71 new businesses established during the last few years in Sandpoint’s Business Improvement District alone, as well as expansion of 14 established businesses.

Hellar did not have statistics on closures. However, according to Kathleen Hyde of the Downtown Sandpoint Business Association, since August 2007 there have been a total of 88 businesses which have closed within the Business Improvement District.

Hyde explained that 15 percent of those closures were due to circumstances other than the economy including retirement, floods to property, health issues and moving out of the area.

In her talk, Hellar acknowledged that assessed property values in Sandpoint have declined, but said it has not been nearly as drastic as in other cities.

It is also important, said Hellar, to ensure that growth pays for itself as much as possible and that the city prepares for the growth that is sure to come in the near future.

“Our impact fees are designed to ensure that growth pays for itself,” said Hellar.

The lull in growth over the past several years has given the city time to prepare for the next wave. Staff has worked on a comprehensive plan and recently implemented zoning changes to reflect the long-term plan.

“We also have the first ever comprehensive storm water management plan,” said Hellar. This will be an EPA requirement once Sandpoint’s population reaches 10,000.

With an emphasis on infrastructure to support future growth Hellar also said it is important that the infrastructure benefit several businesses, instead of a select few, and be implemented in a way that provides the city with a competitive advantage enticing businesses to move into the area.

“We do not want a terrific infrastructure and no businesses,” said Hellar.

The city will also continue to work with the Economic Development Corporation to bring a fiber optic system to the downtown core – something that will surely help bring more businesses to this area.

While there are some valid concerns – specifically how to take back the downtown streets which are currently under the governance of the Independent Highway District and will continue to be so even after the completion of the byway – it is not all doom and gloom as many may believe.

And while Hellar is optimistic, she did acknowledge that if the state of the city is to improve, she cannot do it alone and appealed to those in attendance to do their part.

“If you ask me how we are doing and what is the state of the city” said Hellar, “It’s really pretty good, but we are poised to be a lot better with your help.”

Contact correspondent Patty Hutchens by e-mail at pattyhutchens@yahoo.com.

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