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Buy a Community This Christmas

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There's a reason that natives choose to continue living here, and tourists passing through fall in love and stay. The beauty of the area is a part of it, but it's only a part.

A community is what you choose to make it, and when it comes to our local economy, we make our choices when we spend our money. It seems as though the parking lots of the big "Marts" north of town are packed on any given day with the cars of local shoppers, while downtown Sandpoint, also full, seems to be the bailiwick predominantly of tourists. What choices are we making here?

A while back, I had three rolls of film I wanted to get developed, and I was feeling pretty cheap (a common occurrence for me, I must admit). I dropped the film off at K-Mart instead of driving downtown to Mike at the Image Maker, or to Sue at Haynes Photo, thinking I'd save that less-than-a-dollar a roll. When I returned to pick up my film, I was presented with a bill for $45. I was surprised, to put it mildly. Turns out I had checked the wrong box on the order envelope, and I now had in my possession three, 36-print rolls of film, all developed as 5x7 photos. Double prints. What a savings!

The film lab in Seattle, where my negatives were sent for developing, had no reason not to fill my order in just the way I ordered it. Had I taken that film to Haynes or to Image Maker, however, I would have gotten a phone call, at the least, asking me if I was sure I really wanted 216 5x7 prints. And I would have said no. Mike and Sue got a good laugh out of that story, and I got a good lesson in remembering the difference in service that's provided by a local business.

Not that that's my only story. Because one day, the light bulb burned out on my scanner. I called PCEZ, but they didn't have a replacement bulb in stock and I needed one today. No, make that yesterday. The folks there even looked at the scanners they had for sale on the floor, willing to pull a bulb out of one of them to get me through the day, but they were all the wrong type. So I called Staples.

The young man who answered the phone listened to my request. "Oh, those bulbs are really expensive," he told me. "You'd get off cheaper by just buying a new scanner, and we have them on sale right now."

Now, no one's going to confuse me with an environmentally sensitive person to whom waste is anathema, but even to me it seemed a bit excessive to throw away an entire scanner for want of a light bulb. So I called Merwin's, and they sold me the bulb I needed for $1.49.

I hear a lot of reasons why people choose not to shop downtown, and some of them are even valid. Most, however, simply reek of… baloney.

"It's impossible to park downtown," people tell me. Not true at all. I am downtown every single day of the week, and while I can't always park directly in front of the business I'm going to, there's never yet been a time when I couldn't find a place in the city parking lot, only two blocks from almost every single downtown business. That's no further than parking at the far end of one of the Mart stores.

"The prices are too high," is another lament and, again, that's not always true. Apples to apples, most downtown businesses can match, and sometimes even beat, the prices of the big discount stores - and not just those in Sandpoint, but the stores in Coeur d'Alene and Spokane as well. And if people don't realize that, it's because they didn't check.

"It's all for tourists," I'm told, and that one has a small ring of truth because it does sometimes seem to be only the tourists who appreciate the jewel we have in downtown Sandpoint. We lost a lot when we lost Taft's off of First Avenue. But that doesn't mean we can't get it back.

The 80s got tagged with the name, "the Me generation," but it doesn't seem like things have changed much in the last two decades. "What's in it for me?" people ask, as if it's not enough just to care about the businesses that populate our downtown. Well, there's a lot in it for us.

There's a reason that natives choose to continue living here, and tourists passing through fall in love and stay. The beauty of the area is a part of it, but it's only a part. It's the community that draws people, and that community would not exist without the support of those downtown businesses - their financial support, those same dollars that we locals are so hesitant to spend there. Not a day goes by when businesses downtown aren't asked to contribute to the very things that keep us living here - to our schools, our sports teams, our extra-curricular activities. To the festivals and events and causes we take such enjoyment in promoting and participating in. Without the dollars provided by local businesses, these things could not continue to occur.

I'm not advocating that every person spend every dollar in a locally-owned business. This is not a perfect world and, for most of us who live in this area, where the median income is lower than just about anyplace except Mississippi, we have to be pretty careful about the money we spend. And the big discount stores, the companies owned by an out-of-state corporation, even the shops in Coeur d'Alene and Spokane have their place as well. There are things you can purchase there you can't purchase anywhere else and, when the money really matters, there are things you can buy cheaper. And let's admit, there are days when our schedules make it a real convenience to buy milk and underwear and oil for the car, all in the same place.

What I am advocating is that we give a little thought about where we spend our money, before we spend it. When we talk about heading into Costco, let's take a minute to think about what Yoke's and Safeway and Harold's have done for our communities throughout the years.

Downtown businesses have taken the step of taxing themselves and using the money to "beautify" downtown, as if prettier flower planters or nicer street lighting will suddenly wake up the locals to what we have in our downtown area. I think it's going to take more than that to get local people to shop downtown - we're probably going to have to grow up a little bit first.

There is something inherently ridiculous in asking our local businesses to donate to an event we're holding, then running to Spokane to buy candy bars and soda pop to sell at it. There's something wrong when our government entities solicit donations from downtown business, then hop on the Internet to buy their supplies. There's something very tacky in buying a product in Coeur d'Alene, then looking for free support from a local business to make it work. And there's something sad when we can't find a place to park when it's time to shop, but have no problem getting downtown with our hand out for a donation.

So here's the challenge. Before you pack up the car to make a 50-mile trip to do your Christmas shopping this year, pick up one of your kids' high school annuals, and take a look at what businesses bought an ad in it. I'm willing to bet you won't find Costco, or Target, or any store in the Valley Mall. Then take a look at your shopping list, and see if you really have to head out of town to buy your Christmas presents - because you're building your community with your choices.


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Landon Otis

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