When a New York business owner considering relocating to Payson said one of our schools reminded him of a third-world country, Scott Flake decided to do something about it.
"They were very interested in the area and he wanted to see some of the town," Flake, director of the Payson Regional Economic Development Corporation, said.
Flake took the visitors to lunch at Chaparral Pines, showed them the college and the library. Up to that point, they seemed impressed with Payson, he said.
"Then we took them to the schools. We happened to be over by Frontier (Elementary School), so we went there, and they couldn't believe we had a school without windows," he said. "The timing was bad because there was construction going on and there were ceiling tiles that were out of place and some of the debris had fallen on the floor."
A visit to Payson High School didn't fare any better.
"I made the mistake of parking in the side lot and they wondered about all the (construction) fences," Flake said. "They were impressed with the dome, but then we went in through the back of the auditorium which was absolutely filthy."
Sometime later, Flake told Macky's Grill co-owner Cari Day about the experience. Day, who is on the site committees at FES and Rim Country Middle School, offered to help him do something about it.
Flake and Day took their concerns to Payson Unified School District Superintendent Herb Weissenfels. They found a sympathetic ear.
"He's not trying to push it under the carpet," Flake said. "He even came to Rotary Club and talked about it."
With Weissenfels' support, but no money in the PUSD budget, Flake and Day launched a citizens' initiative -- the Payson School Beautification Committee.
"We want our kids to be proud of our schools," Day said. "With the problems we're having in our schools with morale, with teacher morale, let's make (the schools) a better place for our kids and for our teachers, make them want to come to work."
The committee first interviewed all the PUSD principals, asking them to prioritize their individual school's needs, and to rank the schools in order of overall need.
"You have no idea how difficult (prioritizing) has been," Day said. "It's all bad. One of our meetings was three-and-a-half hours long just trying to sort through it."
On one point, however, there was unanimous agreement -- Rim Country Middle School is the worst of the worst. The committee decided to focus its initial efforts on the exterior appearance and grounds of RCMS.
"Not only is it the middle school, but it's kind of in the middle of things geographically," Flake said. "It's one that we thought we could potentially make a big difference."
The committee has drawn up a two-page list of improvements that need to be made to the RCMS exterior. They range from moving the bike racks from the front of the school, to replacing and widening sidewalks, and screening a transformer with landscaping.
"Our goal is not to do a cleanup," Day said. "It is going to be a maintainable beautification."
The committee also doesn't want to create new problems in fixing old ones.
"If somebody goes in and plants all these nice flowers, then they have to be watered," Flake said.
Day added, "Our goal is something like what they've done at the college: xeriscape something that is very maintainable."
Given the sheer scope of the RCMS beautification, not to mention the district's other schools, the committee is looking for outside help, especially from businesses willing to donate the supplies and materials that are needed most.
"We're going to go to the big people and get concrete donations and plant donations, and we want to put it out there to anyone that has some wonderful things to donate," Day said.
Flake added, "We'll probably be going to some of the service clubs and things to try to get each one to take on a certain area."
Now that it's begun, the committee realizes that the scope of the undertaking is enormous. But Flake said he believes Payson is at a stage as a community where the condition of its schools needs to be addressed.
Fortunately Payson is still in the running for the New York company -- a high-tech firm that would add 100 jobs. The company, which Flake declined to identify, is looking at other locations in Arizona and several other states.
To volunteer or make a donation, call the PREDC office at 468-6659.