Sunday, August 30, 2009

Sandpoint Economy Doing Well In Spite of Economic Downturn

A recession? You could have fooled those in downtown Sandpoint during this past month. With activities such as artist tours, an arts & 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 welcomed 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 this year has been an exceptional year for her business. She credits that in part to the fact that couples, especially non-residents, are choosing Sandpoint as a beautiful setting for their weddings.

“A lot of people chose Sandpoint this summer for their destination weddings,” said Waterhouse who adds that the Inn’s suites have been at maximum capacity nearly every weekend. “Extended families and friends will book the entire property for the 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. As far as future plans for the Grill, Waterhouse said “Stay tuned.”

It is 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 had a modest increase.

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

"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 business at his sporting goods 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.”

While Merwin did have to lay off one of his employees, he said what has been 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, has proven to be a lesson in business and a reinforcement of the faith he has in his customers.

“We cut our inventory down so instead of carrying 12 of a certain item, we now may carry 6 of that item,” said Merwin. “We are running a lot more efficient now.”

Merwin added that his loyal customers have been the reason for the store’s years of success, and they have continued to support him even during challenging economic times.

“What drives our business is the local residents,” said Merwin who adds that he is grateful for their continued patronage. “People are very patient when we tell them we have to order an item that we normally would have carried. They are very willing to wait a couple of days.”

Merwin adds that what could also fuel the belief that the economy is weak is the tendency for businesses to keep raising the bar.

“If we had the numbers we have today ten years ago, we would have been jumping for joy,” said Merwin. “But as the numbers increase so do our expectations. Maybe we are setting the bar too high.”

Merwin said that his store has definitely seen a trend in the positive direction over the last several months and it is one he believes will continue.

So for now, local business owners are pleased that the economic climate has not affected this community as badly as it has other areas in the country; and if tourism continues and people continue to discover Sandpoint, the entire local economy will continue to do well.
“Sandpoint is still one of the most beautiful places around,” said Waterhouse. “A lot of people are still making this their vacation destination.”

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