Captains Of Industry

Rim country leaders reflect on economic developments

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Communities can learn a lesson from nature. Change is a necessary element of life. The business community knows that it must grow or die, even though community members at large don't always understand exactly what that means.

Two local organizations, the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Payson Regional Economic Development Corporation, exist primarily to help businesses thrive both individually and collectively and to attract new businesses to the area. They also work to enhance the quality of life in the community in general.

Russell Judd, president of the Payson Regional EDC, understands the fears some people have about too much growth and too many changes.

"There's no such thing as staying the same. Communities can die easily and quickly. But our objective is not to change the personality of Payson and other communities in the area, but to maintain it by making sure there's a sound economic base," he said. "There's a perception that growth is change; actually, growth means no change in lifestyle.

"It's the lack of growth that causes the life of the community to deteriorate and ultimately die," he said.

Economic development is more than recruiting new business, Judd said. Enhancing conditions in the community is the key element in his job.

At the top of his list of goals is improving the housing situation for low- to middle-income families, which, he said, Payson needs in order to attract new business. His organization worked hard last year to get an affordable housing project located on land near the Payson airport.

"The town council squashed that," he said, but while losing that project was a disappointment, the EDC quickly moved on to other opportunities.

Recently, the Payson Regional Housing Development, a nonprofit charitable organization, was formed to pursue grants and tax credits to obtain land and build a 40-unit apartment complex.

"We are looking for a site," Judd said. "Our role is to facilitate the process with a goal toward completion in 18 months to two years or so."

In March 2001, the EDC hired Scott Flake as a full-time facilitator. In part, Flake's job is to expand the EDC's effectiveness and business outreach services, while representing Payson as an attractive place to operate and own a business. Flake will start the job April 2.

Judd, who is the CEO of Payson Regional Medical Center, and the six members of the EDC's board, are all development corporation volunteers.

The EDC also has a new and active Web site, www.paysonecon.org, which is getting 2,000 hits a month, Judd said. It offers education, information and follow-up to people interested in the area. In addition, Judd said, the EDC is involved in ongoing discussions with local businesses about their needs and their ideas for expanding and attracting more business, especially light manufacturing.

"Growth increases the value of existing businesses," he said. "New business stimulates the economy through competition."

He cited the remodeling and expansion of Bashas' grocery store in anticipation of the new Wal-Mart Supercenter and the arrival of Sawmill Crossing as examples of how competition leads to general improvement in the level of quality and appearance of other shopping centers in town. New business brings other benefits, too.

"We get a better work force," Judd said, "and young people want to stay in Payson instead of saying, 'I can't wait to get out.'"

Challenges for the community's future include handling growth in a positive way, he said. And when the last four-lane stretch of the Beeline is complete in April 2001, he said, it will have a big impact on the Rim country, because it will create a faster, more attractive route to the entire northeast corner of the state through Payson.

Chamber corner

Tom Kaleta, CEO of Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce, is excited about a new tool to help the business community grow and improve.

The Business Retention and Expansion Survey a study prepared by the chamber through Northern Arizona University is a compilation of hard data about the market based on a survey sent to all businesses in the region. Kaleta said statistics like this haven't been available before.

Businesses were asked such questions as: What do people buy in the Valley? What do they buy locally? What products are needed here?

"Now we have real statistics to take to companies ... not just opinion," he said. "It's not 'we think,' it's 'we know.'"

Additional studies are needed to explore other questions, such as what causes bankruptcies, which are more difficult, he said.

Chamber ambassadors, 36 volunteers in Payson and 28 in Pine-Strawberry, also take informal surveys in person. Visitors are asked to fill out reports on their plans for relocating, and relocation packets are made available. Lists are passed on to local Realtors who are chamber members.

The chamber's Web site, www.rimcountrychamber.com, receives 160,000 to 170,000 hits a year, Kaleta said. The site has links to the EDC, Town of Payson, other Rim country communities and the Tonto National Forest. It also has a calendar of events, a list of chamber members both business and nonprofit organizations and more.

The chamber also publishes a monthly newsletter, "Views from the Rim," which keeps its 600 members informed about activities, business news and trends, and legislative issues that demand local attention. The chamber's board of directors has 10 members, with Michael Harper serving as president.

Four-color magazines and brochures promoting the Rim country are being distributed around the state, and through the chamber's visitors center. The brochures placed in the Phoenician and Concierge resorts in the Valley were particularly successful in pointing visitors to the Rim country, Kaleta said.

"Tourism is a major part of our economy," he said. He noted that while Rim country towns have a number of destinations to attract visitors, the chamber is working to acquire more.

"We've evaluated the ones we have the rodeo, festivals, art shows, the fair, etc. and we're helping to find supporters for them," he said.

Kaleta points to the region's natural attractions as sources for business ideas. Local businesses that capitalize on those attractions include a new four-wheel-drive touring business called Payson Adventures, Inc. and horseback riding ventures at Kohl's Ranch and in Pine. He sees eco-tourism as another way to develop new tourist destinations.

The chamber's Business Showcase 2001, which will be held April 20 and April 21 outside Rim Country Mall, is expected to draw more people than last year, Kaleta said. Last year, the event attracted 6,000 people, he said.

Building relationships that will help attract more business to the region is one of the chamber's primary goals, he said, and it's vital to lobby the state legislature on issues pertaining to rural communities, such as the loss of HMOs, which is seriously hurting existing and prospective businesses as they are forced to pay more for benefit packages, he said. Perhaps a third of Payson's seniors could be forced to leave the area, he said.

Another legislative issue, Kaleta said, is rural Arizona's need for broadband technology and better communication and Internet infrastructures. Partnerships with private companies and local governments could be combined with state funds to pay for expensive improvements such as fiber optic networks, which have become vital for many businesses and the communities that want to attract them.

Kaleta said his involvement with groups such as the Arizona Department of Commerce and the Arizona Office of Tourism has boosted statewide exposure and awareness of the Rim country.

"We can never prevail at the state level until we build a presence (at the legislature)," he said.

But despite the chamber's gains, significant problems are stifling progress in the Rim country, Kaleta said.

Among those problems, he said, are:

Empty buildings in the industrial park at the airport.

Few town incentives to entice businesses to the community.

High impact fees, a restrictive bureaucracy, an anti-growth sentiment and water limits.

Higher living costs, low-paying jobs, a lack of discretionary income and a lack of low- to middle-income housing.

He said he thinks the town needs more sophistication in local government, more manufacturing companies, quality men's and women's clothing stores and a climate of competition.

"The schools are losing students, teacher pay is low, class sizes are larger," he said. "There's a two-and-a-half year inventory of homes on the market. Prospective businesses look at cultural opportunities and living conditions for their workers. Payson is at a very serious juncture right now. We're the hub of the region. We need a re-evaluation of where we're going. We need evolution, not revolution."

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