Payson No. 10 Senior Hot Spot

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It's already happened to Prescott, several times over.


It's happened to Lake Havasu City, too. So perhaps it was only a matter of time before Payson was named one of the country's top 10 retirement cities.


According to the results of a recent, nationally publicized study, Payson is the nation's 10th fastest-growing retiree-magnet, attracting a 46-percent increase in seniors during the past nine years.


Small-town Arizona dominated the study, with six cities, including Prescott, Lake Havasu City, Kingman, Wickenburg and Bullhead City, also named to the list of 15 cities and towns.


The study was conducted by Mark Fagan, professor of sociology at Jacksonville State University in Alabama. Fagan, who's been studying and rating retirement areas since 1983, said his latest results demonstrate that Arizona, more than any other state, has what retirees are looking for.


"A lot of the appeal, naturally, is the climate," Fagan said from his office. "Many of the retirees who migrate to Arizona are from the East and Midwest, and they simply don't want to shovel any more snow. But they're also looking for more rural and suburban areas with access to metropolitan areas, quality housing at reasonable prices, recreational and cultural amenities, accessible health care, and lower crime areas."


Fagan said his research also uncovered something new that appeals to many of today's increasingly younger retirees: employment opportunities.


"Not for the money," he said, "but for the social interaction. They want to work, to volunteer, to remain active, to contribute to the community. That may be the biggest trend we're seeing."


None of these trends are limited to the cities on Fagan's list. According to his study, Gila County showed a 22-percent population growth between 1990 and 1998. "In fact, every county in Arizona showed population growth between 1990 and 1998," he said. "I don't know of any other state in the nation that can say that."


And Payson could be in for one of the fastest growth spurts the town has ever seen, Fagen said. "You don't need a crystal ball to get an idea of what this could mean," he said. "Just look at Prescott."


Prescott was a small, quiet town before Money Magazine named it the No. 1 retirement spot in America in a 1995 cover story. Since then, the town has also received high rankings from several other list-makers, including the Places Rated Almanac.


"Ever since that first list came out, people have been flocking here like mad," said Prescott Chamber of Commerce volunteer Andrea Odean. "Before that, this was still the country. But now, all the hills and mountains are covered with homes, roads have been cut through the forest, the traffic is terrible. Personally, I don't like how it's boomed.


"I'm glad for Payson, though," she said. "Maybe you'll start taking some of the stress off of us."


Patrick Kanieski, the Prescott Chamber of Commerce's membership director, however, offered a more upbeat outlook.


"It's been a great thing for Prescott," he said. "I believe in economic growth, in community expansion, in tax growth, in increasing the tax base. Being named in those annual lists has really helped us move in those directions."


There have been problems, he said, but none that Payson can't avoid with judicious planning.


"We did not plan well for traffic expansion, and that was a mistake," he said. "To expand roads, you have to close them or limit access, and we're at a point where traffic is so high that would be extremely difficult and frustrating."


Town planners also have to accept the community's limitations, he said.


"If a town is planning to expand by, say, 30 percent, how will that affect water resources? If there isn't currently a 30 percent water surplus, you'd best keep a tight rein on growth until there is.


"The bottom line is, your council and city planners need to take a real pro-active position, to prepare Payson before all these new people show up," Kanieski said. " And they will show up."


"The Arizona Department of Commerce is forecasting a 28-percent increase in population for Payson," said Tom Kaleta, CEO of the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce. "It has been determined that, right now, the town can support 18,500 comfortably, and beyond that, there is no cushion. So it's vitally important that we manage our growth wisely.


"It doesn't matter if some list ranks us No. 1, No. 10 or No. 100. It's coming."


To sum up how powerful these top-10 lists can be, Fagan points to the country's longest-working expert on the subject of retirement living, Peter Dickinson. Dickinson is the author of "The Guide to Retirement in the Sunbelt," and other best-selling books.


"Dickinson just retired himself," Fagan said, "and he moved to Prescott."


Fagan said he has no current plan to move to Payson.


"But that could change," he said. "It has everything I'm looking for, too."

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