Business in Payson, which was laboring under the lingering effects of a sagging national economy and the state's 2002 wildfire scare, was sluggish last year. But early indicators, said Scott Flake, director of the Payson Economic Development Corporation, suggest that business is picking up.
"We're getting more phone calls from people who want to relocate, expand or start new businesses," Flake said. "We feel like we're just starting to pull out of the slump, and things are moving back into an upswing."
Payson's sales tax revenues were flat in 2003, gaining just three-tenths of a percent over the previous year. Local sales taxes, which hit a peak gain of 19.6 percent in 1994-95, produced limited growth in 2002 as well, gaining just eight-tenths of a percent over the year before.
"But this year's numbers are tracking a little higher than expected," Payson's Chief Fiscal Officer Glenn Smith said. "I'm saying we're in a slow recovery. It's not gangbusters, but it is better."
Although last year's sales were weak, the town's retail sector is poised for growth, Flake said. When Home Depot announced plans this month to open a store in Payson by 2005, it indicated a potential shift in the local retail market.
"I think Payson is finally on the map," he said. "Our traffic count, which is one of the things they look at, has gone up, and national retailers are finally taking a look at us.
"Home Depot is going to be huge," he said. "It's going to boost sales tax revenue, create jobs and keep money -- revenue that's currently going down to Phoenix -- right here in the local economy."
Home Depot, which will join Chili's and Blockbuster Video as the latest national chains to move here, is expected to bring 150 jobs to town.
Another major employer -- a cabinet manufacturing company -- opened here in December 2003. The Door Stop brought 65 jobs to town -- the largest number of new jobs to come to Payson in the past five years.
"When we updated our list of top 20 businesses this year it was nice to see the Door Stop on the list," Flake said.
"Typically our biggest employers are Wal-Mart, the casino, the hospital, the school district, the county, the town. It was nice to see a manufacturing firm on the list.
"The Door Stop is big for us," he said. "The project took three years to come to fruition, and it's going to have an important impact on the economy. The company doesn't sell any doors in Payson so it's pulling all outside revenue into the economy. That's going to generate other jobs down the line."
The Payson Economic Development Corporation, a nonprofit organization that contracts with the town of Payson and Gila County to provide economic development services, recruits businesses to the area, helps new businesses open and helps local businesses expand.
The agency also is looking for ways to boost tourism -- a local economic factor that Smith says kept Payson's economy from losing ground the past two years.
"Our economy's been sluggish," Smith said, "but it didn't drop off like other towns around the state did. Some of them went into the tank. The bed tax (a surcharge on local hotel rooms) was $49,726 (in 2003) -- the highest it's been in four years. I think in-state visitors really helped."
The challenge for Payson now, Flake said, is to build on the economy's budding momentum.
"We're working very hard to boost the economy," he said. "It's exciting to help local businesses and bring jobs into town. We have a lot of challenges, but we're definitely starting to see things happen. Our area has a very high potential."