Back in the salad days of Payson's summertime tourism, when the town actually earned and lived up to the title "Festival Capital of Arizona," one could barely traverse the Beeline Highway without encountering one major crowd-pulling event or another.
The summer of 1980, for example, there was the Old-Time Gospel Music Festival; the Old-Time Country Music Festival; the Country Music Festival; the Logger's Sawdust Festival; the Kiwanis Club's Chili Cookoff; the World's Oldest Continuous Rodeo; the Bluegrass Festival; and the Old-Time Fiddler's Contest.
Today, only the rodeo and fiddle fest are still alive, augmented by a relative newcomer: the nine-year-old June Bug Blues Festival, which last weekend broke all previous records ... for audience apathy.
For the 2001 June Bug, the event's one-man organizer and promoter, "Shakey" Joe Harless, managed to attract 1,149 live-music afficionados to the Payson Event Center for his eclectic lineup of blues acts.
Last weekend, despite unanimous rave reviews for his participating acts and what he calls "the best publicity we've ever had, and a 100-percent awareness factor," Harless drew 830 ticket buyers an alarming one-third drop.
He also lost sufficient thousands to make him wonder if the June Bug will ever rise again, or if it is destined to go the way of its extinct counterparts.
Can the June Bug and the town's other surviving festivals all of which have seen dramatic drops in attendance over the years be saved? Or is the former "Festival Capital of Arizona" fated to become entirely festival-free?
Center of a storm
"I don't know that we could ever be the 'Festival Capital of Arizona' again," Payson mayor-elect, Ken Murphy said.
"I was on the chamber board from 1986 to 1992, and during that time we gave up several of the festivals," Murphy said. "Part of the reason was that, when people started organizing them back in the '60s and '70s, no other town in Arizona was doing them. But by the time I got on the board, on any given weekend there might be three or four bluegrass festivals statewide. Suddenly we were in competition with all these other communities. And since then, the competition has gotten heavier still."
During the festival era's heyday, Murphy said, "people didn't mind getting a blanket and their tie-dyed t-shirts and sitting in the dirt listening to music all day long. Now they show up in $300 boots and jeans, and they don't want to sit in the dirt for anything. They want a really nice venue, and we don't have that.
"The Payson Event Center has no cover, no protection from the heat and dust ... You're out there in the middle of the sun, and potentially the rain. And who wants to sit on aluminum bleachers when there's lightning? That's not a good thing. Until we have a venue that's inviting, where we can present a variety of events, it's going to be difficult to ever attract people up here," Murphy said. "As we've seen, we've had declining attendance at all of our festivals for years because of that deficiency."
"Right now," Harless said, "on my answering machine at home, are dozens of phone calls from people in the Valley saying they loved the festival, but that they can't stand the dirt, the heat, the wind and the general atmosphere. What the event center is, is a rodeo grounds. It's for rodeo, monster trucks and dirt bikes and for these, it's great."
According to Bob Ware, executive director of the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce, it may be time for the town and its residents to adjust their collective view of the Payson Event Center.
"Maybe we're trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear," Ware said. "Maybe all it is is a rodeo ground, a livestock show, a motocross or dirt-activity center."
All things reconsidered
But redefining the Payson Event Center is not all that needs to be done, Ware said. The methods of the facility's operations require some serious reconsideration, too.
"The event center, by itself, is a large business that is not being managed as a business," he said. "We have to look at it as one of the major engines of this community. If it's occupied 35 to 45 times a year, it has real value to the community. But if we look at it as just sort of a stepchild activity, where's the value? The June Bug is a business, the rodeo is a business and the town needs to look at them as businesses as well."
Payson's new administration, Murphy said, is on that very same page.
"The town, quite frankly, is not in the entertainment business," Murphy said. "We own the event center, but I would like to try to get it leased out to somebody who does entertainment, who can take it and run with it and have something happening there every weekend.
"But first, as mayor, I need to know whether the public believes that having an event center is a want or a need," he said. "There are a lot of people who think that having a nice place for a concert or something like that is simply a want; that it's not a need if it's not building roads or fixing the infrastructure. On the other hand, I can look at it as a need, because it's the engine that's going to bring in more bed and sales tax to give us enough money to go out and build roads."
In the meantime, Murphy said, the new administration "needs to look at how the town is working with the people who are trying to organize events. Are we making it so restrictive that they're giving up? Maybe we need to re-look at everything we're doing to try to make everything more user-friendly. Governments should be able to facilitate these things, and not be a roadblock."
Field of option
As those issues are being decided, Murphy believes there is at least one other local venue option for non-"dirt activity" festival producers like Harless whose first seven June Bugs were held to great success in green, shady Rumsey Park.
"If we can have a town-sponsored concert series in Green Valley Park, I am willing to see if the town can co-sponsor Joe's event," Murphy said. "Rumsey Park was built with public funds, and it is not for me to pick and choose how people use it. It was designed to be a softball field, but there's no reason in the world why someone couldn't put a stage there and have a concert if that's something that will help make their project successful."
What we lose, how we lose it
On the bottom line, those interviewed agreed, there is a single tenet upon which all Payson festivals rise and fall: No matter where you put it, and no matter how the town or chamber does or does not support it, no public event of any sort can survive an apathetic community.
"We really shouldn't have to count on drawing people from the Valley," Harless said.
"We have 46,000 people in the Rim country," Harless said. "All an event needs to be successful is 2,000 people ...
"My goal has been to do four live music festivals a year. But if we can't make one go, there's no way I can do two, three or four."
"When we lose these things, we lose a tremendous asset for our community and for local businesses," Ware said. "To lose Joe would be a shame. And he represents everything else we could lose."
"Losing the June Bug may not be the same kind of historical loss to Payson as it would be to lose the rodeo, but it would still be a huge loss," Murphy said. "You're losing just a little bit more of your heart and your culture when you lose something like that.
"It all goes back to the same philosophy as 'shop locally.' Anything we do in Payson, and spending our money in Payson, is going to benefit everybody in Payson ultimately. That's what people need to look at. When we spend money in town, we're paying a dividend to ourselves."