They Spoke. The City Listened.
It’s been an interesting past two summers with construction, reversion to two-way streets and more for the Downtown Sandpoint area. While commuters may have found it to be an inconvenience, downtown business owners have felt a much larger and direct impact on their day-to-day operations, especially given the fact that construction typically takes place during their busiest season from May through October. So, when the City of Sandpoint began to plan for another phase of construction next year, they carefully considered the impact it would have on our local businesses in the downtown corridor. Working together to come up with a proposal that would not only work within their budget and allow them to do construction during the non-summer months but would also not devastate the local business economy was a challenge. But Sandpoint Mayor Shelby Rognstad, Sandpoint City Administrator Jennifer Stapleton and Public Works Director Amanda Wilson, who was hired earlier this year, weighed many options and presented their proposal in late October to a group of downtown business owners and interested citizens.
“Our goal is to have the least amount of impact on local businesses as possible,” said Mayor Rognstad to the crowd who had gathered.
Stapleton said that the need for urgency to start the project in 2019 was two-fold. First, there is failing infrastructure that needs replaced, and second, the funding for this project is through a CDBG (Community Development Block Grant) and SURA (Sandpoint Urban Renewal Agency) grant, both of which require that the project be completed within a certain timeframe.
At the time of the presentation, Stapleton assured the group that a contract had not yet been signed or committed to, and the City of Sandpoint wants to work together with business owners for a solution that benefits everyone.
“We’ve listened to your concerns,” Stapleton told the business owners.
Among those concerns that the city acknowledged during its presentation are that when construction takes place, it appears businesses within that zone are closed, there is limited access to businesses, the overall atmosphere of the construction zone may deter people from the area, the location of the portable toilets, the fact there is less parking and the significant amount of dust that is created from moving vehicles or loads of dirt being delivered. There are also considerable challenges for delivery trucks.
The bottom line, said Wilson, is that there is a reduction in sales, something which can be devastating to a downtown business during the peak season. “And it’s not just about the profits,” said Wilson. “We all take a lot of pride in our town, and we want to be successful as a community.”
When brainstorming to come up with a solution, Stapleton said she instructed everyone to throw out all assumptions about construction, such as that it can only be done in the warm summer months, and start from scratch. And the fact that Wilson had a background in construction management was a significant help.
“We listened to the concerns regarding traffic, dust and the impact on businesses and asked questions such as, ‘Can work be done at night? Can work be done in winter?’” said Stapleton.
With the next phase of the project going from First Avenue and Church Street, down First to the intersection of Cedar and Second Avenue, there were many businesses on hand anxiously awaiting to hear what the City of Sandpoint proposed for next year. And while a handful of attendees had questions and suggestions for City of Sandpoint management, many left feeling relieved about the upcoming tourist season and its impact on their business.
Deanna Harris, owner of Sharon’s Hallmark in Downtown Sandpoint, said not only was she very pleased with the city’s proposal but was also happy to see so many business owners and community members come to the meeting.
“Many of the businesses provided feedback to city officials throughout this past summer's project,” said Harris. “It appears that they really listened to this input and have made changes to the original construction plan that will definitely help businesses.”
Harris said the limited parking availability and the noise, dust and chaos of the project were definitely some of the business owners’ concerns. In addition, as Wilson said, there is the issue of how to overcome the perception that either businesses were closed or not accessible. Wilson talked about a banner across First Avenue, something Harris thought was a great idea.
“We have even talked about a ‘roll out the red carpet’ theme where we would have red carpet runners in front of businesses and really work together to make it evident we are open and ready for business,” she said.
Outlining the proposal with a PowerPoint presentation, Wilson said the plan would involve delaying the start of construction until after Labor Day in 2019, with First Avenue being closed to motor vehicle traffic but open to pedestrians for the month of September.
“We would have the curb-to-curb construction completed by October 31, 2019,” said Wilson of the project that will eventually be storefront to storefront. Depending upon the weather in November, they may or may not be able to have concrete sidewalks over the winter, but they will definitely be five-foot sidewalks with a hard surface, asphalting them for the winter time if concrete cannot be poured.
While actual construction will not begin until after Labor Day, there are things that will be worked on in the spring, some which are not related to the actual street project. Stapleton said the city is currently working with Avista to transfer the overhead power lines to underground, something which will take place in the spring, similar to the Oak Street project which occurred earlier this year. The City of Sandpoint also plans to award the construction contract by June so that preparation of ordering materials and more can be done over the summer months.
Wilson outlined other plans to reduce the impact on local businesses, one of which is to provide incentives to the contractors if they complete the project ahead of time. Conversely, there will be penalties if the completion dates are not met. In addition, by allowing the contractors to work 24/7, the project should be able to be completed in the shorter time period.
There will be no motor vehicle traffic or parking allowed in the construction area until paving is done, a move aimed at reducing the amount of dust in the area. Wilson also said there will be construction staging areas for materials and portable toilets, and there will also be designated delivery times and locations. They also plan to provide better signage to make both locals and visitors aware that businesses are open during construction.
The city will hold another public meeting in the spring, which, according to Wilson, should be sometime around March, to update the community on plans. They will also advertise for bids for the project at this time. They will then hold another public meeting in August to update everyone again.
While the city is doing its best to make a minimal impact on the downtown businesses, let us, as a community, unite and make a conscious effort to shop our local businesses, not only during the times when it may be more challenging for them, but all year long. They truly are much of what makes Sandpoint unique. And if you do get frustrated, remember in the end it will be worth it.
“We are all going to need to work together and make this a successful project,” said Harris. “The end product will definitely be a nice improvement!”
For more information on the city’s proposal, log onto SandpointStreets.com and click on the link titled Phase II.