Commission Out To Revive History, Pride Along Old Main

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Sharesse Von Strauss sums up one of the many challenges facing Payson's newly-formed Historic Preservation and Conservation Commission and particularly its mission on Main Street with a story.

"There was a reporter who made the mistake of asking Pablo Picasso, 'What is art?' just when they had just finished eating a large fish dinner," she said. "Picasso looked at him. Then he grabbed a fishbone, went to his studio, shoved the fishbone in some clay, put it on the wall and said, 'That is art.'"

The point? Like art, appreciation for any attempt at Main Street redevelopment will forever be in the eye of the beholder.

But even though Von Strauss and the other six members of the preservation commission have had just two meetings since their mayoral appointments were ratified by the town council in January, they have already formed what may be a foolproof plan of attack: Stick as closely to history as possible.

Or, as Von Strauss puts it, "We want to maintain Payson's heritage and integrity while guaranteeing that our children will grow up with a genuine sense of their hometown community."

Part of the solution

Meanwhile, of course, no one would mind if the commission also helped rescue Main Street from its long-running economic doldrums including Community Development Director Bob Gould.

Gould spearheaded the creation of the commission because it is one of a town's requirements in order to become a Certified Local Government which in turn would open up increased funding opportunities for historic preservation purposes.

A lengthy search and application process turned up the seven required members with the required backgrounds and qualifications: Von Strauss, who is director of the Rim Country Museum; local writer and historian Stan Brown; well-known local architect Rex T. Hinshaw; experienced preservationists Patricia Lundblad and Jeanie Langham; U.S. Forest Service archeologist Denise Ryan; and Realtor John Hanna.

"I'm very pleased with the makeup of this team," Von Strauss said. "I think we are all very much headed in the same direction. This is not just a group of concerned citizens out there; this is a highly structured commission."

The purpose of the commission is to develop rules, procedures and actions that will ensure preservation of the historical significance of the Town of Payson. The commission acts in an advisory capacity to the mayor and council in regard to historical significance, design review and other issues.

The commission is to meet at least four times a year, and all of its decisions and recommendations are made in an open forum.

Vision quest

It is Gould's hope that the primary focus of the commission during its first five years will be on preserving the cultural heritage all over Payson generally, and in the Green Valley Redevelopment Area specifically.

"In other words, we won't lose some of the historical structures we have down there right now, and we'll gain some of the historical structures for public purposes," he said. "We'll also have new development go down there that accommodates the design theme from the original territorial architecture designs."

What Gould wants especially, he said, is to "preserve the critical issues that really built on what Payson was years back. Like the Pieper House and the old original power station. We need to continue with those design patterns that have evolved, because they define the character of Payson.

"But the biggest thing the biggest thing is getting people to invest," Gould said. "The public investment must be made. If the public doesn't invest the money, the private sector isn't going to, either.

"We've got the $7 to $10 million Sawmill Crossing project, and we've got the (Fairfield) condo and hotel project (in south Payson), which is probably going to come in at $4 or $5 million. But those are just a drop in the bucket compared to what we need down there.

"We're probably looking at $3 to $3.2 million in today's dollars for roadway improvements alone," Gould said, "and a lot of those funds will need to be local."

The town has come up with what Gould calls "a humoungus plan" to track down grants for development and heritage funds, but so have countless other towns across the country. "Those programs are so competitive that you may get 20 proposals and only six of them get funded," Gould said. "So we need to identify a funding source. That's critical."

One item Gould hopes to add to a town council agenda within the next few weeks is a discussion of the town's sales-tax increment program which says that any local increases in sales tax get reinvested locally and how a portion of that money might be used for Main Street redevelopment.

"Then we're going to try and see what kind of funds we can develop from that," he said.

Road rage

"A big problem on Main Street is that, like almost everywhere else, it's given in to the automobile," Gould said. "My personal opinion? I'd love to see us take Main Street back to a two-lane roadway.

"I know. People will scream, 'My God, what are you going to do about the traffic?' I say to hell with the traffic. In the last 50 years, the only thing planners have done is to look at every single way to accommodate the automobile. We build all these new roads, and what happens? They encourage more traffic."

Taking Main Street back to two lanes, Gould said, would encourage businesses to use both the exteriors and interiors of their business; compel people to walk down the street; and utilize the Main Street area for different purposes.

"No way in the world do we want a Bashas' or a Safeway or any of those major superstores down there. There's no sense in it, there's no practical way we could accommodate that. So bring it back to the way it was."

What could result, Gould said, is a strong economic engine for the Town of Payson.

"We've got the movie theater and a half-dozen retail spaces going in there now," he said. "The Fairfield Hotel on top of the hill will start to become a reality in the next two or three months. And the realignment of McLane Road will get rid of that god-awful intersection at McLane and the Beeline.

The two-lane plan, Gould said, is "just one step in the right direction. And we'd be doing it by sitting back and saying, 'Let's look at people, and not look at the damned automobile.'"

Reaching compatibility

The only Main Street plans that have any hope of working, Gould thinks, are those which gear the area as a place not just for economic contributors, but for the people of Payson.

"We don't want to design a tourist area down there," Gould said. "That is, by far, not the intent. But the design will enhance tourist activities and, at the same time, provide activities for the people who live here."

But not to the degree that Main Street in Payson starts to resemble in activities or design its Disneyland counterpart, said Von Strauss.

"It is possible to reach a compatibility between the old and the new without going to extremes," she said. "There are some beautiful examples in Tempe and Prescott. Both of those towns have worked very hard at maintaining their integrity, and they've succeeded beautifully."

In fact, it could be said that "reaching compatibility" is the primary challenge facing the commission between residents and visitors, between business and pleasure, between cars and pedestrians, and between what Von Strauss calls "the visual comfort zone and functional comfort zone" of the area.

Striking happy mediums in such a realm won't be easy, she said often because people simply utilize different mental dictionaries.

"For example, take the architectural style known as 'Western territorial,' which so many people use to describe Main Street," Von Strauss said. "All it means is the utilization of the most immediate and cheapest material available to put a roof over your head. In Tucson, it's adobe. Here it's stone and ponderosa pine. But you put someone from Tucson and someone from Payson in the same room, they think they're talking about the same thing."

First things first

Before the commission can straighten such things out, however, it must finish setting itself up.

Gould and the commission members now have a design review ordinance in draft stage and in need of "a few more cleanups," Gould said, before it is sent for perusal to the Green Valley Redevelopment Area Committee which deals with the town's overall capital improvements on Main Street and the surrounding area.

Also nearing completion are drafts of the town's Historic Preservation Ordinances, which Gould said will soon be distributed to the commission for review. The commission will forward finalized drafts to the council for consideration and possible adoption.

"If we can do that, we've made a lot of progress," he said.

"It is a bureaucratic process," said Von Strauss. "But once we're up and going, this commission is not just going to help Main Street. It's going to help the entire town, because our focus is town-wide. It will include archeological sites, and buildings appropriate for election into the national or state historic register in and out of the Green Valley Redevelopment Area."

Five years from now, what does Von Strauss hope will be said about the Historic Preservation and Conservation Commission?

"That we helped people who owned older homes that qualified for a historical register. That we developed a reference library. That we were instrumental in acquiring grants. That you can drive down Main Street and see some of the preserved properties and the pride that was put into their preservation."

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