1. Eastern Arizona College, which had for years held classes in cramped quarters between a laundromat and a party store in a Payson strip mall, completed a 21,000-square-foot college building in November on the east edge of town.
College officials spent a decade fund-raising, saving and lobbying the legislature to build the $2.5-million school, which features six basic classrooms, two computer rooms, two art labs, a science lab, a resource center, conference and gathering rooms and a distance-learning studio for students who want to take classes from Northern Arizona University via two-way television.
The two-year college's partnership with NAU's distance-learning program allows students to complete certain four-year degrees and a handful of master's degrees without ever leaving Payson.
But this was a big story not because it heralded the completion of a big project, but because it held such big promise for the community and the town's future.
The stylish brick building, which is set back on 56 acres of tree-covered property, provides the people of Payson with more than educational elbowroom.
It provides the community with a source of pride the kind of bricks-and-mortar confidence that will encourage high school students to start their college careers right here in their hometown. And it's that kind of grassroots faith that will allow the college to expand its degree offerings and provide the community with skilled, educated residents for the future.
2. The murder trial of Star Valley businessman Roy George Haught, who was accused of killing 53-year-old James Cooper of Strawberry during a fist fight outside Cooper's home, sharply divided the community.
Prosecutors contended that Haught, who had admittedly been drinking with friends on a brisk December evening in 1997, tailgated Cooper from the parking lot of a Strawberry bar to Cooper's house several miles away.
There, prosecutors said, the two men got out of their cars, confronted each other and Haught punched Cooper in the face, knocking him to the street. Prosecutors said Haught then kicked the man while he was down and left.
Haught's defense attorney argued that Cooper, who was 18 years older and 55 pounds lighter than Haught, pushed the 6-foot 1-inch man twice and that Haught struck Cooper in the head once in self-defense.
Cooper died in a Valley hospital six days later from a severed carotid artery caused by a hard hit to the head. A jury in Globe convicted Haught in February of aggravated assault and negligent manslaughter, crimes that normally carry mandatory prison sentences.
Haught's supporters, who knew him as the descendent of a pioneer ranching family and the generous owner of a local earthmoving business who had donated his time, money and equipment to dozens of community causes, rallied around him and fiercely defended him.
Cooper's friends rallied around his widow, Esther, and fretted openly that justice would not be done in the case because of Haught's long-standing family connections in the community.
During sentencing in March, Judge Edd Dawson dismissed the jury's finding that Haught should serve mandatory prison time and sentenced him to five years of probation instead. Considering Haught's history of charitable works in the community, the judge said, he is not the sort of man that should be sent to prison.
The judge's sentencing decision fueled suspicions among Cooper's supporters, and they began a letter-writing campaign to the governor proclaiming that the justice system had failed them.
The prosecution appealed the sentence in August, and the matter is pending in the Arizona Appellate Court.
3. Payson gained national attention in November when the Wall Street Journal printed a study by the Jacksonville State University in Alabama that named Payson the 10th fastest-growing retirement community in the nation.
Sociology professor Mark Fagan, the man who conducted the study, said that Payson simply has everything retirees are looking for these days.
"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," he said. "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."
The news gave business owners a shot in the arm, but appalled residents concerned about slowing the town's growth to protect the community's water supply and standard of living.
4. On a quiet afternoon in October, a man trying to elude officers shot Payson Police officer Allen Dyer in front of a crowded shopping center and shattered the community's sense of security.
It was the first time since 1992 that a Payson Police officer had been shot in the line of duty, and the reckless nature of the shooting, which took place near a crowd of men, women and children browsing through a sidewalk sale at Wal-Mart, unnerved residents.
Dyer was shot while he and other officers were searching for a man who was reportedly carrying a handgun near the Payson Village Shopping Center. Dyer came upon 40-year-old Lenny Kizzar outside Wal-Mart, and the officer was shot while trying to usher the crowd out of the line of fire.
"(The gunman and I) were less than an arm's length away when I was shot," Dyer said while recovering from gunshot wounds that shredded his stomach muscles and nicked his liver and lung.
Kizzar fled but was captured a short time later in a nearby neighborhood. He was arrested and charged with attempted murder. He remains in custody in the Gila County Jail in Globe.
Dyer is only the second Payson Police officer in history to be shot in the line of duty. The first was Police Chief David N. Wilson, who was shot and killed in September 1992 while conducting a routine welfare check on an elderly resident. After shooting the chief, the resident, Anton Gnader, shot himself to death.
5. The Payson landscape changed dramatically when earthmovers leveled a forested hill along Highway 87 to make room for a 142,000-square-foot Wal-Mart Supercenter. The scenic location was a controversial spot for the store from the beginning, prompting the Payson Town Council to call for a public vote in 1998, in which 58 percent of the voters approved the project. The project, which began in April, has continued to generate controversy and excitement, ranging from criticism of the store's exterior colors to concerns that the mega store will harm small businesses to frenzied anticipation of the store's new features, which will include a grocery store, bank, beauty salon, vision center, bakery, florist shop and deli.
6. After two years of trying, contract negotiations broke down between the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Payson Pro Rodeo Committee, severing the committee's ties to the World's Oldest Continuous Rodeo for the first time in five decades. The split bruised the reputation of Payson's most honored tradition and undermined the community's long-standing spirit of rodeo teamwork and diluted a once-strong volunteer pool.
Members of both groups blamed the division on miscommunications during contract negotiations, but it was clear that the problem ran deeper than that. The heads of both groups were strong-willed community leaders who had vastly different styles and approaches to producing rodeos.
Although the two groups are still divided, they're both working to protect our western heritage. The Payson Pro Rodeo Committee will produce the Annual Gary Hardt Memorial PRCA Rodeo in May and the chamber will produce the World's Oldest Continuous Rodeo in August.
7. A grassroots movement to preserve the community's western character and restore its small-town charm caught on and won the support of the Payson Town Council.
The Green Valley Redevelopment District Committee, which formed to preserve the town's heritage, revitalize the community's Main Street neighborhood and invigorate Payson's business sector, developed a comprehensive redevelopment plan for the town's Main Street area.
The 13-member group, with authority from the Payson Town Council, created a triangular-shaped redevelopment district ranging from Frontier Street on the north, Oak and McLane streets on the west, to the Beeline Highway on the south and east.
The area accounts for 5 percent of the town's total assessed value, but is responsible for 47 percent of the police calls, and while new construction in the rest of the town totaled $9 million, new construction on Main Street was estimated at $17,000.
The redevelopment committee plans to apply for grants and other funding to help business and home owners in the area improve their properties. Town officials plan to widen streets, create off-street parking and develop green belts in the area to reinvigorate the area's business sector and make Main Street an attractive tourist destination.
8. One screen, two screens, three screens, four: The on-again, off-again project that was to bring a four-screen movie theater to Payson was placed on hold.
Kaibab Industries, owners of the former Kaibab lumber mill on Main Street, announced plans last winter to build a shopping center, Sawmill Crossing, on the old mill site. Those plans, said Vice President Gordon Whiting, revolved around an anchor tenant, a multiplex movie theater.
Negotiations between Kaibab and theater operator E&W Theaters broke down and the plan was put on the back burner. Whiting insists, however, that his company still plans to move forward with the shopping center, and his company may build and run the theater.
In the meantime, George Harrison -- owner of the Payson Village Shopping Center -- announced plans of his own. Harrison and his partners plan to buy the old Wal-Mart building once it's vacated and open a four-screen theater.
With the building already in place and structurally sound, Harrison said he thinks he can beat Kaibab to the hot-popping popcorn.
News of this latest plan to bring a movie theater back to Payson is being received by many area residents with guarded skepticism. With no theater within nearly 100 miles in all directions, residents are anxious for a hometown movie theater, but have had to do without one for so long, they're keeping their enthusiasm in check.
9. Phoenix Logistics, a high-tech manufacturing firm that seemed to be everything Payson wanted in a light-manufacturing company, canceled plans to move to town because the cost of land was too high. The company claimed it would have brought 200 jobs and an estimated $5 million payroll to the area.
But it was not meant to be. Early in 1999, the State Land Department nixed a deal to sell state-owned land to Phoenix Logistics. Town officials convinced the State Land Department to reconsider, and the land was put on the auction block in November, unfortunately at a price too steep for Phoenix Logistics owner Ray Bellefeuille or everyone else. There were no takers on the 13.5 acres appraised at nearly $596,000, and the land remains in the hands of the State Land Department.
10. Rodeo Relocation Coordinator Barry Cardinael and his efforts to move Payson's rodeo arena from Rumsey Park to a site in south Payson garnered mixed reactions from the public.
When Cardinael applied for the rodeo relocation coordinator position, he told the Payson Town Council that he envisioned a multievent center that would attract talent and events from around the country.
He vowed to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for the project and to move the rodeo arena by March.
Problems arose, however, when Cardinael's vision was pared down by reality and he consistently fell short of his contract goals.
Nevertheless, the council renewed his $1,000-a-week contract twice in an effort to support the project and its dedicated volunteers, and to get the job done.
With the combined efforts of businesses, volunteers and town employees progress was made and by December, volunteers were moving the first set of bleachers to the new arena. Payson's Pro Rodeo Committee plans to hold its Gary Hardt Memorial Rodeo at the new site in May, carrying on Payson's rich rodeo traditions.