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Why Sandpoint Thrives 

A lesson from the best place in Idaho

click to enlarge CALEB WALSH
  • Caleb Walsh

I am back in my hometown of Sandpoint this week. I wasn't born here, but it's the place that most defines me. It's where I truly fell in love with my wife and where we got engaged. It's where I first went to work after college at a small weekly newspaper I started with a couple of friends. It's where I learned who I am and what I'm willing to fight for. Sandpoint is home.

click to enlarge Reuter.jpg

Sandpoint also happens to be the best place in Idaho. Trust me. My job over the last two and a half years since leaving my hometown has had me traveling to every corner of Idaho, and while this state is filled with beautiful places and amazing people, nothing beats that first drive across the Long Bridge, a local production at the historic Panida Theater or just watching sailboats race from City Beach.

If you haven't been here yet, make the trip. But even if you never do, there are lessons Sandpoint has to teach about building and protecting greatness that every city could learn from. The key principle being that paradise is worth fighting for.

During my time on the Sandpoint City Council, I came to fully appreciate a local saying that "Sandpoint is a place where we circle the wagons and shoot inwards." The politics here can be rough-and-tumble. In part, that's because of the wide diversity of political perspectives, from the far right to the far left. Sandpoint is a town with more than its fair share of eccentric characters, and they are all ready and willing to passionately share what they think.

But the source of our political conflicts runs deeper than just the existence of varying opinions. As a whole, people in Sandpoint recognize they live in a great place and believe that they have a responsibility to keep it that way. They don't always agree about how, and that can lead to fireworks.

This could end up not being particularly effective. If all we did was have a common drive to fight, Sandpoint could just end up as a mini Washington, D.C. — deeply divided and fundamentally broken. But you have to remember the first part of that classic Sandpoint saying: We circle the wagons.

And what do we circle the wagons around? Our shared values of community and place. Our understanding that this place that we all already love so much could be even better, or could be lost.

Most fights in Sandpoint end up with solutions that, while rarely perfect, end up nudging this small town a little closer towards perfection. Sometimes progress comes in the form of something new, like an old city work yard being turned into a neighborhood park, or a local bus to help locals and visitors get around town. Just as often, progress is about preserving Idaho's last active, historic train depot or the two-mile lakeside Pend d'Oreille Bay Trail.

What I know is that things will keep getting better here, and everywhere that people remember that what we love is worth fighting for. ♦

John T. Reuter, a former Sandpoint City Councilman, is the executive director of Conservation Voters for Idaho. He has been active in protecting the environment, expanding LGBT rights and the GOP.

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