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Widmyer: 2021 could bring us closer to normal

by CRAIG NORTHRUP
Staff Writer | January 1, 2021 1:08 AM

With one of the most tumultuous years in Coeur d’Alene’s history now in the books, Mayor Steve Widmyer spoke with The Coeur d’Alene Press about the year that was and the year to come. In the second of the two-part series, Widmyer said he looks forward to the new year with a sense of hope.

“For 2021, I’m looking for the light at the end of the tunnel of this COVID issue,” Widmyer said. “I’m looking forward to getting back to the things all the citizens of Coeur d’Alene love. We love our functions. We love Car d’Lane, we love Fourth of July and the parade. We love Art on the Green and the street fair and Ironman, and we love getting back together, and that’s the thing I’m looking forward to, getting back to normal.”

Normal is a relative term in a tourist town impacted by COVID-19. In the midst of a pandemic in which the weapons against the spread of the disease include wearing masks, washing hands and keeping a safe social distance, mainstay public events like the Fourth of July fireworks show, the Coeur d’Alene Marathon and the Festival of Trees were canceled or modified. But Widmyer said that while he supports those decisions, Coeur d’Alene — along with the rest of the country — is walking into 2021 with new ammunition: the COVID-19 vaccine.

“I know there are some people that believe in the vaccine, and some people don’t believe in the vaccine, and I respect those that don’t. I myself believe in the vaccine. It’s been studied scientifically, and I’m hoping we get to that number of people in Kootenai County that get vaccinated that will allow us to get back to a normal life.”

Widmyer said congregating in groups — even after the administering of vaccines — will take some getting used to, a feeling that might not be fully realized in 2021.

“It’s going to take a few years for people to be comfortable again, because everybody’s going to be looking over their shoulder," he said. "Our last pandemic a hundred years ago, but everybody’s going to be thinking, ‘Gosh, when’s the next one going to hit?’”

As for the financial health of the city, Widmyer said the city plans for economic downturns — pandemic-driven or otherwise — and that its $109 million budget is at least partially protected by savings.

“The city of Coeur d’Alene is very strong financially because we’ve always insisted on having that reserve fund," he said.

COVID-19’s financial impact on Coeur d’Alene and the rest of America is by no means finished, however. With customers less willing to travel, visit restaurants, buy from businesses and sleep in hotels, the hit to the tax base is one all cities will continue to feel in the new year.

But Widmyer added that the city has much to look forward in the coming years that will help Coeur d’Alene gain ground, most notably the closing of the urban renewal swath that runs across the shoreline known as the Lake District, which will revert back to city hands in 2022.

“One thing we’re going to have with the close of 2021 is the close of the Lake District,” Widmyer said. “Tony Berns and the ignite cda board members will have a final year. The budget impacts of that will not come back until next year’s budget, around the summer of 2022, when we’ll decide on where those urban renewal dollars go. But the closing of the Lake District is going to be very important to the financial future of this city.”

That Lake District has produced iconic Coeur d’Alene landmarks like McEuen Park, Memorial Field, the new parking garage and — most recently — the newly-completed Atlas Park.

“That Atlas Park is just a fantastic new public park,” Widmyer said. “If you haven’t been down there yet, it’s just incredible, the features we have down there. The ADA accessible kayak launch, the dog park, the swimming beach.”

Widmyer stressed, however, that Coeur d’Alene will still have obstacles. Growth will challenge city leaders, something the mayor said he hopes a new comprehensive plan update will help ease.

The update happens every eight to 10 years.

"I think COVID has probably kept more citizens from meeting, from giving their opinions, from attending meetings, from getting involved," he said. "We’re going to try in the first quarter of this year to get more people involved and get more public input.”

As 2021 will bring to close the mayor’s second four-year term, he said that — while he hasn’t definitively decided whether he’ll run for a third term — his mind starts to wander toward projects he’s had to put on the backburner while he served.

“When I came into this thing over seven years ago, I wasn’t a politician,” he said. “I was a husband and a dad and a business person. I still don’t and never will consider myself to be a politician. I’m just a regular guy. I’m going to think about it. I’m going to talk with my wife about it. My family and I will talk about it. We’ll make a decision probably this spring."

But there are some things he said he would love to do, including real estate projects, buying an old building and putting some life into it, or maybe buying a piece of dirt and building something from the ground up.

"And let’s be honest: This job restricts that. That’s something that, from the time I got out of college to now, is something I’d really like to do," he said. "So I’ll have to take a long and hard look at it. I just turned 60 years old, believe it or not ... I got a few good years in me left, and I want to make sure these are enjoyable years.”