Jonathan Coe, interviewed by Katrine Barber on 30 April 1999. Coe is the former executive director of the Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce.
B: During what years were you president of the Sandpoint Chamber of commerce?
C: Technically it was executive director and I was there from 1984 through 1998, so fourteen years.
B: How long had you lived in north Idaho?
C: I just moved to north Idaho to take the position. I had been in Spokane for about five years prior to that.
B: Where were you before that?
C: Before that I was from Massachusetts, a New Englander that transplanted himself.
B: That's quite a ways to come. Um, when you were the executive director of the Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce, what were some of the most pressing issues that the Sandpoint business community was facing?
C: Well, when I arrived in 1984 it was really a low point of the kind of the community of the region's economic history. Unemployment in Sandpoint at the time was around 16-17 percent and per capita income was running about 70-75 percent of both state and national averages so it was a very poor community and really the biggest issue right from the get go was to figure out how to improve the economy both to attract new business and to help grow the ones that were already there particularly in the tourism and timber industries and then to see if we could recruit light manufacturers and others that could both raise the wage scale and hopefully at the same time employ more people.
B: What kinds of strategies were you using to do those kinds of things?
C: Well, um, what evolved partly consciously, partly unconsciously was the notion that the most immediate thing we could do was in the arena of tourism. Two-fold, there. One, we could put on events. We didn't have a lot of money but we did have a lot of time, effort, energy, and enthusiasm so we started creating events. We had a winter carnival, a Marti Gras and a lost in the 50s and the Sandpoint Festival was started at that time and there was another called Waterfest and the national draft horse show took place and those were added to the existing fishing derby so that we had essentially a major event each month going on in town. And while that was happening we put together some cooperative marketing programs that enabled a variety of business to come together and almost put money into a common hat and we went to the state and got some grant money to match that and began doing aggressive marketing campaign in the Spokane market so that we were putting on events, bringing people to the community for events to try, at least immediately to get more cash infused into the community. And then our assumption was, in all honesty it proved to be true, that several things would flow from that. One, that a successful tourism industry or a successful tourism activities would generate additional invest into the community from other tourism-related businesses. And over the following years, we saw that to be true. A golf course was created, Schweiter put a substantial expansion in places, motels added on to rooms, and we put things like a lake boat on the lake. So that the tourism industry was able to build on the success of those initial events. The other assumption we made was that, as people came to Sandpoint and discovered it as a community that they would want to move there. They would find that it was a very attractive place to live: four seasons of recreational opportunities, wonderful folks, great events, outstanding cultural activities and that also proved to be the case so that over the years was to obviously grow that light manufacturing segment of the community and over the years that has provided substantial employment and has become, we envisioned a three-legged stool with timber, tourism, and light manufacturing playing kind of equal parts to support the community. And light manufacturing, especially if you count Coldwater Creek in there (interrupted by telephone call Coe takes).
B: Okay, so you'll have to remind me what we were talking about.
C: Well, I was just saying that one of the hopes, and as it turned out, one of the actual outcomes of that whole strategy and effort was that we did attract light manufacturing. We had people who came to Sandpoint, either discovered it or they decided wanted to move back. Um, and brought with them a wide variety of companies such that now in town there are probably ten of fifteen different manufacturing ventures in a variety of arenas from reprogramable control devices to coffee roasters to medical devices to dental devices that are weren't there ten or fifteen years ago that are employing a substantial number of people.
B: I was wondering if you could describe to me what downtown Sandpoint looked like when you got there in 1984 compared to what it looks like now.
C: Well, in some ways the major pieces were there. The Coldwater Creek had been completed, the addition to Connie's, if not done was, just about finished. What one of the difference though in '84 would be that there was still a Penny's downtown, there was still Sprouse Rites downtown, and a store called Anthony's and those traditionally had been kind of the major anchor retailers in downtown and all of them either moved out to the mall or went out of business and that was one of the transitions that took place, somewhat painfully, but I think ultimately happily during that mid to late 80s when, um, the mall captured the department stores and then eventually Kmart and Walmart moved out there as well and downtown shifted to a gift shop, specialty store, tourist attraction and real estate world and it's been, I think it, a good transition for the community.
B: But you said that it was somewhat painful?
C: Well, there were certainly times the cedar street bridge Coldwater Creek now is the sole business. It was originally a series of small shops and there were times when it was moving probably 75, er 25, percent vacancy rate. There were gapping holes at times up and down main street and that took awhile to change. As the tourism activity started taking place and as more folks started to come to town, that did change.
B: What kind of people were you drawing to the events? And were they the same kind of people that you expected to draw to them?
C: Well, I think, interesting that we hoped that we would put on an event and people would want to come and have fun and that folks would drive over from primarily from Spokane. You know, I think we realized early on it was rubber tire market and would come and have a good time and spend money and go back home. What I don't think we appreciated was the extent to which events like events tend to appeal to niche markets. And the ones that certainly were successful were the ones that did that. By that I mean the Lost in the 50s kind of evolved over time. It was a fund raising event dance and then put on a car show and it became this whole mega weekend and its successful because folks who are into classic cars are going to come to a classic car show whether it rains, snows, hails, sleets, whatever. They are going to go because that's their thing. The draft horse show, same kind of situation. People who are draft horse enthusiasts are going to bring their horses and bring them to the sale and sell them and that stuff no matter what the weather's doing. On the other hand we had an event called waterfest which was meant to be a celebration of Spring. It was Memorial Day weekend, kick off the summer tourist season and do kind of fun outdoor things, some sailboat races and some canoes races and a dance and music and such and if it rained nobody came. And that we went through some pretty lonely waterfests before we realized and I think that's the distinction. Appealing to a general audience is difficult. Finding a niche and making it happen is the way to be successful.