When Payson was named one of the country's top-10 retirement cities in a study released by the Jacksonville (Ala.) State University sociology department in November, the national recognition brought no small amount of concern.
Even some rabidly pro-growth locals couldn't help but wonder if Payson is prepared for the rapid population increase such lists often herald ... and if not, how do we get the town ready?
"It has been determined that, right now, Payson can support 18,500 comfortably, and beyond that, there is no cushion," President of the Rim Country Chamber of Commerce Tom Kaleta said when the top-10 list was released. "So it's vitally important that we manage our growth wisely."
State strategy team
As it turns out, wise growth-management assistance is precisely what's offered, free of charge, by a new Arizona Department of Commerce program specifically designed to help the state's rural communities lure, deal with and plan for their ever-increasing influx of retirees.
Conrad Hanson, program manager for the Rural Retiree Attraction/Senior Industries Development Program, said his department has two objectives: to help communities market themselves as retirement communities, and to help attract businesses that will not only attract retirees, but benefit the general population as well.
Although similar programs have been implemented in Mississippi, Alabama and North Carolina, Hanson said, Arizona's program is the most comprehensive.
It officially sprang to life last August, when Hanson invited city managers from Arizona's rural communities to attend a workshop where his department was formally introduced.
Because the program was so new, Hanson said, the Oct. 29 deadline came and went with only seven applications submitted by Holbrook, Lake Havasu, Winslow, San Manuel, Globe, Miami, and the Central Arizona Association of Governments, which covers 16 communities, including Payson, for which an individual application was not submitted.
The CAAG was turned down, Hanson said, because it covered such a huge region. This program is really designed for individual communities such as Holbrook and Lake Havasu, the first two Arizona towns to win out in the two-towns-a-year selection process. The non-winners are allowed to resubmit applications as often as they like.
Hanson's initial task will be to survey those communities to determine if their residents are for or against retirement development, what they like and don't like about their community as it relates to retirement development, and what they'd like to see changed.
With the help of an outside consultant, recommendations are made on how the town can prosper in terms of attracting retirees and retirement-oriented businesses.
Plan of attack
"Then we strategically attack the plan, lay out what needs to be done, lay out long- and short-term goals, and put the strategies to work," Hanson said. "From start to finish, it will probably take a year to implement the program."
The criteria for community selection varies from town to town, Hanson said. "Holbrook, for example, was selected because it's right off Interstate 40, which is a main thoroughfare through Arizona. We also liked the fact that they wanted the program and were excited about what it could do for the community."
If Kara Coleman's enthusiasm is any indication, he's right.
Holbrook's economic foundation development director, Coleman, likes ADOC's new program because "it dovetails perfectly into what we were already trying to do. Marketing ourselves to retirees as both a vacation and retirement destination was part of our economic plan before we learned about this. So we're indeed excited about being selected."
Coleman sees the program not as a way to restructure Holbrook to a seniors-only environment, but to augment and better serve the "nice population mix" the town already has -- while bringing in vacation and retirement dollars that would otherwise be spent elsewhere.
"According to a study by the American Association of Retired Persons, if a town can attract 50 new seniors, that's equivalent to a $10 million industry," Coleman said. "An industry that doesn't have a smokestack."
The ideal, Coleman said, would be to attract tourists and convert them into residents. In other words, date your tourists and marry your retirees."
Town says 'no thanks'
Payson Town Manager Rich Underkofler is disinterested.
"I think we could teach them a thing or two about attracting retirees to an area," he said. "We were on that top 10 list, correct? So we must be doing something right. We'd have no interest in applying for the program."
Kaleta said, however, he is interested. It's just that the local chamber's CEO isn't sure what ADOC's new program could do for Payson that's not being done already.
"Any kind of additional information is good, because it gives you another point of view," he said. "If you have someone who understands the needs of retirement communities, that's a valuable source of information. But telling us what we need, yet not showing us how to get it, won't help.
"Do we really need help figuring out what kind of businesses we need? I've got 10 surveys here that will tell you we need an art gallery, men's and women's clothing stores, and stores that sell anything people now drive to the Valley to purchase ... but nobody tells me how to get the money or help to do it.
"For example, we desperately need affordable housing. Where are all these retirees going to live once they get here?"
Filling in the blanks
"Determining that specific question is a primary function of our program," said Hanson on the topic of affordable housing, adding that he was recently enlisted by the Arizona town of Wilcox to prepare for its own boom of full-time snowbirds.
"We set up a meeting with the Wilcox Chamber of Commerce and some potential home builders, sat down, and discussed what we could do, what would work, and what wouldn't," Hanson said. "We're going to continue working together until a solution is found and implemented.
"It's a common misconception that we're just going to take surveys, tell already-popular retirement communities how they can attract even more retirees, and then leave. Since this program is so new, that image may stick until we've been around long enough to show people what we can do for them.
"We'll show them," Hanson predicted. "But only if they want us to."