by Cara Gardner The city of Coeur d'Alene is, paradoxically, a well known hideaway. Just last weekend, rock star Rod Stewart, sporting leather, fur and his famous shaggy mane, came trotting through the resort lobby. Rod's not the only one who's caught on to this town. Folks from So-Cal and Seattle flock to Coeur d'Alene to enjoy a getaway, and some of them decide to implant themselves permanently. They come to embrace the rugged, quaint place they've found, and they bring change.
Politicians, private investors and community organizations have discovered that it takes more than just money and influence to make a town successful when it's growing so fast.
"Smart growth" may be a clich & eacute; in the world of urban planning, but it describes a necessary approach to contemporary development -- one that Coeur d'Alene developers are tuned into, says Tony Berns, executive director for the Lake City Development Corporation (LCDC), an urban renewal district.
In the case of Coeur d'Alene, smart growth largely includes mixed-use development projects, beneficial to the city because they encourage business diversity. Developers in Coeur d'Alene are working on plans that not only encourage tourism but also welcome technology, higher education and business.
This can be hard, with a growth rate like Coeur d'Alene's. Kootenai County is still one of the three fastest-growing counties in the nation. Coeur d'Alene's population has grown almost 10 percent since 1997. Similarly, employment has increased in the county by 10.4 percent. Jonathan Coe, president of the Coeur d'Alene Chamber of Commerce, says that growth is a big story for the city.
"Looking at Spokane, there is a huge loss of jobs in the past year. In Kootenai County, there are 750 more jobs than there were in 2001. The county has grown despite the national economy."
Karen Cook, office manager for Jobs Plus, a North Idaho nonprofit that helps companies decide whether to relocate to the area, says that they have about 150 active clients.
"We have a pretty steady number of clients looking at our area. I've worked here for 10 years, and I've never seen a time when it's peaked or gone significantly down," Cook says.
For developers, that's encouraging. It also explains the high number of development projects going on in the community. Here's a look at some of those projects:
The Educational Corridor -- Picture an expanse of educational facilities connecting the Coeur d'Alene campuses of the University of Idaho and North Idaho College (NIC), including a high-tech health and science building.
This is the Educational Corridor, first introduced by NIC in 1999 and backed by U of I last year. The multi-partnered project also includes the city of Coeur d'Alene, the state of Idaho, the John Stone Development Corporation and the Stimson Lumber Company.
The corridor is slated for acreage now owned by Stimson Lumber Company. Add this corridor to Research Park in Post Falls, and the area is on its way to a stronger higher education presence.
Mayor Sandi Bloem says even though it's been five years since the project was first proposed, plans are moving right along.
"This is a very major project in the respect that it involves railroads, six or seven partners and a company we really want to stay here. This is not an overnight project, but I think we've accomplished a lot here and it's very exciting," Bloem says.
One major concern, however, is the Idaho state budget. The state is supposed to fund the anchor tenant, a high-tech health and science building, but because of current deficits, that funding is on ice.
"We are in budget trouble," says Jack Dawson, dean of the U of I-Coeur d'Alene, "that's common knowledge."
It's particularly bad timing for budget trouble because enrollment at U of I is up 5.8 percent from last year. NIC's enrollment is up 19.9 percent from 1998, and the institutions are struggling to find room for all students.
Bloem insists there is lots of interest in supporting the Educational Corridor. "The governor has been very supportive and is looking at possibilities to help the partnership," she says.
But the lynchpin is locating the funds to buy the Stimson lumber mill, which occupies about 20 of the 100 acres that are planned for use in the Educational Corridor.
The president of NIC, Michael Burke, is quick to note that he understands the importance of the company's presence in the community. "We sincerely want [the Stimson Company] to stay in this community," he says. "We are not interested in taking these jobs out of Idaho. I think they see the vision of what we are trying to create here, and it is a vision that will affect the next generation of Idahoans. But they are also business people and they want to maintain their business and provide employment to their employees."
Indeed, Burke says that Stimson wants about $10 million for the land it now occupies. To make that happen, Tony Berns says that Bloem has taken on negotiations with the company.
Meanwhile, the U of I and NIC are doing what they can to find funding. NIC is looking to taxpayers. Burke says the college may use school-planned facility funding. This would require a countywide election, which would turn NIC into a school district. A levy would be placed before voters to increase property taxes, making it possible to fund buildings for the corridor. Because NIC doesn't know how much its portion of the $10 million Stimson acreage it'll have to pay for, it's impossible to predict how much that tax might increase, or for how long. At this point, it's just being considered as an option.
Tax increases are not an option for the U of I, but fundraising may be. Caroline Nilsson Troy, the executive development director with the U of I, says that fundraising is a slow process.
"We are looking at all our options, and fundraising is just one of those. The story is unfolding and the donors are like investors," Troy says. "They really want to see what the picture is going to look like before they will get involved."
If donors want to see what the picture is going to look like, they may be disappointed. There are no blue prints, models or visual representations of what the Educational Corridor will look like when completed.
"Do we know what it's going to look like? No, but we are conceptually moving forward and looking for funding," Bloem says.
Along the River -- Northwest Boulevard's transformation is obvious in the newly improved highway ramps, the street art added last year and the major undertaking of Riverstone, a multi-use community that is being built by Spokane-based developer John Stone. Riverstone, when completed, will boast a movie theater, shopping district, commercial businesses, restaurants and housing on the water.
"We have a commitment that the theater will be opening in October of 2004," says Stone. "This includes the shopping, residences and commercial sites near it."
A new mixed-use high-rise may also be built on Northwest Boulevard. Brad Johnson of GMAC Real Estate says the project is still in the preliminary stages. Johnson says he sees the 10-story building as both a commercial and residential space.
"It's not healthy to have a bunch of monolithic high-rise buildings with just a door that takes people up into offices. You've got to have something happening on the ground level. We're anticipating some retail or office space. When you look at contemporary urban planning methods, you see that you don't want big breaks of pedestrian activity," Johnson says.
Downtown Coeur d'Alene -- All but one of the 22 units in the McEuen Terraces are occupied. Monty Miller, owner of the terrace, says that despite critics' comments that no one would be able to afford the units, half of his tenants are local. "Our project was the first major construction in downtown in about 20 years," Miller says.
The pace of Coeur d'Alene's growth doesn't surprise Miller. "There's a lot of folks with a long history here that would prefer to see it slow down, but I just don't see that happening," he says.
One project that has sparked debate is whether the trend to upgrade and beautify Coeur d'Alene should spread to McEuen Park, located across from the Terraces, just east of the Coeur d'Alene Resort. The park now holds a playground and baseball field and is the center of a bitter debate.
Plans for the park include moving the baseball field to a different part of the city and putting in a pedestrian corridor. Some argue that the changes would just look like an extension of the Coeur d'Alene Resort grounds, and don't want the baseball field to move.
This controversy shows that sparks fly when communities grow so fast. But the most important thing, says Jobs Plus's Cook, is to be smart about managing all this rapid growth. "There is no boilerplate approach to economic development," she says.
"One of the big things we'll be rolling out in March is commissioned consultants who will develop strategic plans to help the city develop our districts to [their] up-most potential," says LCDC's Berns, who admits that these changes can be hard to pull off. But, he says, it's vital to Coeur d'Alene's future.
"Coeur d'Alene is a city in transition -- a city moving away from an economy based on natural resources. The future is going to look different. This city is going to be more about recreation, and hopefully, with the Educational Corridor, an education spot. We hope to encourage cleaner industries in the form of corporate offices."
Kevin Zollman, chair of the Business Development Committee of the Coeur d'Alene Chamber of Commerce, is excited to have started his media company, Zolmedia, in downtown Coeur d'Alene. Zollman, an import from Alaska, went to the U of I and then left for Seattle. He's been back for a couple years, and says people and companies are looking for places like Coeur d'Alene. Zollman says
Coeur d'Alene is unique because it offers people the area's best resource -- prime lakefront property for the public to enjoy.
"How cool is it that?" asks Zollman. "You've got a park, a resort and a beach all locked up for public use."
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