by Jim Keyworth
Like your mother always told you, a reputation can be a very short-lived thing.
It was just a couple weeks ago that a front page story in this newspaper proudly trumpeted the news that Payson had become one of the top 10 most popular retirement communities in the nation.
But those of us who read the Arizona Republic were jolted awake Sunday, Dec. 19, by a front page photo of Payson's "new main drag," Highway 87, which, the paper claims, "Has grown more garish each year."
In the picture were four or five businesses along that roadway photographed to look like they are right on top of one another.
Under the headline "Changing Arizona," readers were invited to join state historian Marshall Trimble, who has a cabin in Christopher Creek, on a tour of two communities that demonstrate that Arizona is losing its character.
The two towns, Payson and Ash Fork, were each featured in a front-section story, ours under the headline, "Booming Payson becoming like everywhere else."
The article by Maureen West claims that "paved roads and rooftops spreading into the forests" have negated hunting, chasing away both "The hunters and the hunted." It also alleges that a rapid influx of California transplants has driven up real estate prices "and dragged in many of the features of California suburban living."
Not exactly the image the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce wants to convey to tourists and others who are still looking for an authentic small cowboy town experience.
"There was no balance to the story," chamber CEO Tom Kaleta said. "It didn't mention all the positive things growth has brought to this community, like our hospital and constantly improving medical care.
"There are reporters and there are journalists, and I'm afraid this story was done by a reporter," he said. "She came up here with a preconceived notion and then just talked to a couple people who told her what she wanted to hear. It was a one-sided, simplistic attempt to cover a very complex issue."
Of course, nobody disputes the rapid growth the Rim country has experienced in the past 100 years. As the Republic article pointed out, "At the turn of the last century, fewer than 125 people lived in Payson, a treacherous five-day stage ride from Phoenix. Now, there are ... 13,000 residents and more arriving every day."
And considering how fast we've grown in the past century and the important quality of life issues related to growth, it is certainly in our best interests to take a close look at our future. Where are we going? Is there any way to assure that growth has a positive impact on our quality of life?
What will the Rim country look like at the end of the next century?
I asked these questions of Kaleta and three others who have more than a passing interest in the development and growth of our community, Payson Town Manager Rich Underkofler, Realtor and near-lifetime resident Dawn Brunson, and longtime Pine-Strawberry developer Mark Fumusa.
According to Underkofler, the pace of our future growth is entirely dependent on water. "That's the only thing limiting us," he said. "If we're not allowed to explore groundwater resources throughout the national forest, we might not grow much at all. Right now we're restricted from drilling in riparian habitats or in areas of possible archeological significance."
Kaleta, however, said he doesn't think water will immediately limit the town's growth.
"Hydrologists tell us we can support a population of 18,000 with present water technologies," he said. "With rural exploration and new technologies, I think we'll be fine. Most people believe there is water in the woods."
Of course water has been the source of more than a few disagreements in the Rim country, Fumusa said.
"I personally believe we have plenty of water," he said, "yet it takes money to find it and then more money to store it. Fortunately there are lots of people working on permanent solutions to our water problems."
Although Payson is a mountain community, it's in the heart of an arid state and residents have to behave accordingly, Brunson said.
"But I have always believed our water problems are system problems rather than a lack of water," she said, "and that the authorities working on the problem will find a solution."
Assuming water doesn't limit the area's population growth, do we want to control growth?
"There's no way to stop it," Kaleta said. "As the Beeline is finished, we will become, by degrees, a bedroom community for Tempe and Mesa. People down in the Valley are already spending an hour and a half commuting from traditional suburbs."
Underkofler, on the other hand, said that Payson's current town council is keen on growth-management and controlling the town's destiny through managed growth.
Fumusa offered a solution to this apparent conflict, saying he doesn't think growth should be an issue of contention.
"One can join the 'I'm here now, so let's lock the gates' group of non-growth thinkers," he said, "or we can prepare properly so that we're not overwhelmed."
He said that while there is no utopia, and there is always room for improvement, living in Pine for 25 years has made him realize that folks around here are better off than most people.
It's a thought that Brunson echoes.
"I'm a Realtor and my husband is a contractor, so our livelihood depends on growth," she said. "But I'm also a mother of three who has lived here most of my life. While I do miss the life I had years ago while I was growing up, I'm pretty sure my neighbor from out of state misses the atmosphere his home town had 20 years ago.
"You just can't remain small forever. Those seeking a good place to raise their families or retire are going to find Payson."
Assuming that growth is inevitable, what can we do to make it work for us rather than against us?
"We have to create more multi-family housing," Kaleta said. "We have to do it to sustain the people of moderate means who want to live here. If we don't, we could become another Vail, where people have to go distances of 20 or 30 miles to get to work.
"And we have to become a more multi-dimensional tourist destination. We already have five arts groups here. We can still do that and emphasize our Western heritage, and then we won't be so dependent on the rodeo."
In the Pine-Strawberry area, sewage and air quality are issues that Fumusa thinks need to be reviewed and revisited.
"Air quality in our mountain communities is usually a dirt road problem, and while a central sewage system would be best for everyone and for the health of downstream water supplies, these are things that cost a lot of money."
Underkofler and Kaleta both said that the Payson Municipal Airport is critical to the future of the Rim country.
"The airport is going to become more important over time in terms of alternative transportation systems," Underkofler said.
"The airport can be a magnet for small business to locate around," Kaleta added. "Without major freeways in this area, it can also become an important option for shipping and transporting. We need to reserve as much land as possible around the airport for commercial development."
So what will the Rim country look like in 100 years?
"I'm basically an optimist," Underkofler said. "People who are resourceful will always be able to make a good income here. We may never have a lot of major employers, but with the Internet and telecommunications there are lots of entrepreneurial possibilities.
"I see more and more people moving up here for the lifestyle who are engaged in home-based occupations."
Payson and the Rim country are communities in transition and by the end of this century they will have evolved into different places than they are today, Kaleta said.
"We will still be primarily a retirement community like so many in the sunbelt, but the people who retire here will be more affluent and have different tastes," he said.
"No town wants change, but someone has to be strong enough to come up with a concept and stay with it. If our leaders develop a master plan and have the vision to stay with it, then Main Street will get done, we will have the housing we need, people will be able to earn a living wage. All things become possible with a plan and a vision."
The Sunday Republic article cited such evidence of our downward spiral as the presence of drug houses, plastic-roofed fast food joints, historic trees dying because of a dropping water table, and even gated communities.
But when Brunson comes home to the Rim country after being away, she said she sees something else.
"I take trips fairly regularly, and have yet to find an area comparable," she said. "And after being out of town, what a delight to drive through Payson and realize that out of hundreds of other towns, there is none better or prettier.
"While growth is good for my family's livelihood, I also look at it as good for my children and their future. All that has come to pass in the Rim country has been positive in my eyes. I look forward to more of the same in the century ahead."