By Scott Maben, The Spokesman-Review

It takes a brisk pace to keep up with John Stone as he ducks in and out of new stores at Riverstone, his live/work/shop/play community built on former industrial land in Coeur d’Alene.

Working his way down Main Street toward the 14-screen Regal Cinemas, the developer shows off a hair salon, a nail salon, a tanning business, a sports memorabilia shop and a fitness class space decorated with graffiti-style murals. Across the street, work is nearly done on Bullman’s Wood Fired Pizza, which will bring the number of Riverstone eateries to eight.

“We’ve done 30,000 square feet of new retail here” in a little over a year, Stone said.

How has he accomplished it? “Just magic,” he said, smiling. “It just happens.”

After more than a decade of setbacks and stalled progress, the 155-acre development at the Lake City’s front door is springing to life with new shops and restaurants, hundreds of residents and plans to build out the west end with apartment buildings, a regional transit center and possibly a new indoor sports arena for North Idaho College.

Riverstone Rising

There’s also serious talk of adding a technology discovery center for kids and families, and finding a new home for the 90-year-old carousel that once spun fun at Playland Pier on Lake Coeur d’Alene. And community speculation about when specialty grocer Trader Joe’s will land here never seems to fade.

Stone, who turns 70 next month, is making the final brush strokes on his masterpiece. Riverstone is a patchwork of investors and owners now, but he is the one driving the vision to completion.

Stone estimates the total investment in his “town within a town” is nearing $300 million, but he still can’t claim a profit on the venture.

“I’m approaching the time I can say I got out alive,” he quipped on a recent tour. “We’d have to do some magical things to make a profit, but that isn’t how you measure everything in life. I’m just happy I was able to do this.”

Twenty acres of project remain to be developed

From his office near the park and pond he built and gave to the city, Stone sees his planned community growing busier by the day. More people walk and run the trails, more kids play in the park, and more visitors shop and dine out across the way.

The Centennial Trail wends through the property on its way south toward Coeur d’Alene’s higher education corridor, downtown and lakefront. Another trail takes off from here and connects with the popular Salvation Army Kroc Center, the Ramsey ballfields and park, and points north.

Stone’s vision for a “lifestyle center,” where people can walk to everything they need to live comfortably, has not changed. “It’s just a place to go to spend some time,” said the Gonzaga University graduate, who launched his career developing mini-storage projects.

Riverstone will be home to 800 people within a year, he estimates. About the same number of people work in offices, shops and other businesses within the development. All 132 condominiums perched above storefronts are occupied by full-time or part-time residents, and construction will begin this spring on a 40-unit apartment building, with another 140 units soon to follow.

After the land sales Riverstone has under contract now, only about 20 acres remain to be developed.

“This year it’s going to look like the rebuild of World War II out here,” Stone said. “It’s going to be really busy.”

In the Village at Riverstone, the retail heart of the development, vacant space is going fast. A large empty corner on Main Street could be divided into six units, and businesses ranging from a wine shop to a kitchen store might move in this year, Stone said.

“It will be full by August,” he predicted.

Down the way, a 360 Fitness gym is getting ready to open this spring. And next to that, a half-dozen grocers have looked at a 25,000-square-foot space originally built for Barnes & Noble before the bookseller backed out of a lease agreement in late 2008.

“I think things are turning,” said Chris Schreiber, a broker with Kiemle & Hagood, which handles retail space in the buildings that make up the village as well as office space and land elsewhere in Riverstone. “I think this summer is going to be pretty fantastic for those retailers down there.”

“It’s one of the nicest, newest projects in our market, and it’s building more and more of a reputation as a destination,” Schreiber added.

Jennifer Rea moved her gift and home décor shop, Daisy J’s Trading Company, to Riverstone last August. It gave her more space and brought in new customers who overlooked her shop when it was downtown the past five years.

Rea also lives at Riverstone above the stores, and her red-headed daughters, ages 4 and 1, are familiar faces in her shop. She said the momentum on Main Street surprises visitors who haven’t been down lately.

“People kind of hibernate for the first quarter around here, so they come out in March and they’re just blown away and excited about all of the new changes and tenants coming in,” she said.

A series of store openings suggests the slack years following the recession may be ending. “I think people are regaining confidence in the economy and feeling comfortable opening a small business and working for themselves again,” Rea said. “And this is such a premier location in our area.”

Storefronts of glass reignite lease interest

The former lumber mill and gravel pit between Interstate 90 and the Spokane River was an obvious choice for redevelopment when Stone and his partners in SRM Development took it on in 2000. It was at the first eastbound exit from Interstate 90, along the busy Northwest Boulevard thoroughfare, within a few blocks of the bustling medical district, next to where U.S. 95 crosses the river, and minutes from downtown.

But like developers everywhere learned, the decade ahead would be a turbulent ride.

“Nine-11 was pretty tough on us. Nothing happened for a year after that. People just stopped,” Stone said. “And then in 2008 we went through all that national trauma with the real estate market.”

The body blow of retail anchor Barnes & Noble bowing out prompted other national franchises to retreat from Riverstone. And lackluster sales of condos built to appeal to empty-nester baby boomers led to deeply discounted auctions in 2009 and 2010.

Lenders foreclosed on two of the three condo/retail buildings in the village in 2010, and the following year SRM deeded back to another lender the high-traffic movie theater and adjacent retail spaces that include several restaurants and a Starbucks.

It appeared Riverstone was unraveling well short of its completion. The project also was an easy target for critics of the city’s urban renewal agency, the Lake City Development Corporation, which pledged just over $9 million of public investment in the project.

The developer paid upfront for all those improvements, including development of the city park, and will be reimbursed over time from property taxes generated solely from the new commercial and residential buildings at Riverstone.

“The developer is on the hook, the public is not – no risk to the public, and we get a great project that is working,” said Tony Berns, the urban renewal agency’s executive director.

In December 2010, Stone parted ways with the firm he co-founded, Spokane-based SRM Development, and indicated he was ready for semiretirement while remaining involved in the completion of Riverstone.

He formed a new company, Riverstone Holdings LLC, to push the project toward completion. Then in January 2012, Idaho Retail, a company he co-owns, took back the two condo/retail buildings.

Soon after, Stone reignited interest in Riverstone, according to Schreiber, the broker.

“The first thing he did was spend quite a bit of money to do all those glass storefronts on Main Street,” he said.

Plywood had covered the windows of the vacant spaces – an eyesore that turned off prospective business owners.

“As soon as we started making that change, that’s when we started signing leases. I mean literally within days of people seeing activity,” Schreiber said.

Stone said he’s trying to create a shopping niche unlike anything else in the region. “The big national stores are in trouble and tough to deal with and everything,” he said. “So what I’m focusing on are regional and local stores, and that’s what I want here. I want ones that are really lifestyle things, that cater to the local communities. That’s my concept.”

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