Christopher Creek More Peaceful With Bypass

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When Christopher Creek staged a festival last October to celebrate the new bypass that takes Highway 260 around this scenic community instead of through it, expectations were high.

While the reality hasn't lived up to the promise, community leaders remain optimistic.

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Part of the charm of living in Christopher Creek is the opportunity to get up close and personal with wildlife. Despite the nearby house, this fearless elk has decided to take a break from his daily activities.

"What happened is they closed that exit for about 10 weeks so you had to go past town to come back in, and that definitely affected us," Debbie Aschbrenner, owner of Tall Pines Market, said. "All the businesses lost about a month worth of business because of it. That was right after Labor Day weekend and it lasted right up until almost Christmas."

But while business is off, the bypass has already produced some benefits for the 500 full-time families who live there -- benefits that should one day translate into more visitors.

"The community used to feel divided by the highway," Susan Keown of ERA Realty said. "People would stay on this side of the road and wouldn't want to cross the street to the restaurants because of the traffic. It felt so divided. But now we see a lot of customers walking up and down the street going from business to business, and they can easily cross the street. It just feels much better; it feels like a community again."

Aschbrenner says there is definitely a greater sense of camaraderie among the residents of the lushly-wooded resort community, 22 miles east of Payson on Highway 260.

"It's given us more of a village atmosphere," she said.

The bypass also has provided greater access to Christopher Creek's greatest asset -- the natural beauty of its surroundings.

"We have hiking trails across from (Tall Pines Market)," Keown said. "The 284 Road that's there goes up to the Highline Trail, and many more people are able to walk across the street and walk up that road without dodging all that traffic."

Now that tourists have to go out of their way to visit Christopher Creek, the business community is staging festivals and other events on a regular basis to give them a reason to come.

"ADOT's research shows we can expect a 6.5-percent drop in business with the bypass, but it will give us a chance as a community to pull together and become a destination resort and have some of these events and street parties that we couldn't have before when a major highway ran through here," Keown said.

For Aschbrenner, the concept of a destination resort isn't that much of a stretch.

"With camping and cabins, we really are a destination anyway, and we're going to create the festivals and other attractions that will make us even more so," she said.

One new event that the two women are especially excited about is the Invitational Street Rod Car Show, scheduled for May 15 and 16.

"It's really going to be a spring festival, but we'll have this antique car show with it," Aschbrenner said. "We're bringing up 50 to 60 of the best antique cars, and then we'll have crafters and things along the road."

Another new addition in 2004 was a stop in Christopher Creek by the Hashknife Pony Express during that group's annual ride in January. The ride, which begins in Holbrook and concludes 200 miles down the road in Scottsdale to mark the opening of Parada del Sol, is a re-creation of the famous Pony Express that ran between Sacramento and St. Joseph, Mo.

Forest health and the ongoing drought continue to play significant roles in the prosperity of Christopher Creek.

"Two years ago, it was the (Rodeo-Chediski Fire)," Aschbrenner said. "Last year, they didn't even open the forest until after the 4th of July. So we had two years of just horrendous problems."

The lingering drought is not only bad for business, it's also starting to wear on residents, Aschbrenner said.

"It's just so iffy right now with all the waiting to see what's going to happen," she said. "If we don't get rain, it's going to be just like last year. When they talk so much about closing the forest, it just affects all of us so bad."

Ray Larsen, Christopher-Kohl's fire chief, is not optimistic.

"We're in the same position as the rest of northern Gila County," he said. "It's going to be a nasty one."

While fire and rain are pretty much out of their hands, the community's leaders are doing what they can to get all the loose ends wrapped up on the bypass.

"Right now, it's pretty confusing," Aschbrenner said. "Some of the signs aren't even spelled right. And instead of an exit, there's just an arrow. We're going to try to convince (ADOT) to sign it as a ‘Christopher Creek loop' so people know they can go in and right out on the other end."

The bypass was created when ADOT completed a new 5.3-mile stretch of Highway 260 around Christopher Creek between mileposts 272 and 277. It's part of a project to widen 21 miles of Highway 260 to a four-lane divided highway between Star Valley and Colcord Road.

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