Call it a tree tax, the pine cone effect, whatever you want, but the economic shortcomings with a funny name are hurting lots of people in the Rim country.
"We wanted a small town, laid-back setting, with clean air, but boy, it's hard to make a living up here," Charlotte Scully said.
She and her husband Dave know about the tree tax firsthand. There is a recognized cost to living in a nice mountain area like Payson, and unfortunately some employers know it.
"I worked at a local golf course here for a year and they were abusive toward workers and the pay was bad. So I quit," Dave said. He and his wife opened their own cleaning business, Charlotte's Custom Cleaning.
Both are in their early 50s and aren't ready to retire. Between Dave's pension and their part-time cleaning business, they do pretty well each month. But they have to work hard to make it all come together.
"If you're reliable, very good at cleaning, there's money to be made in Payson," he said. "A lot of cleaning companies aren't reliable, so they fold up after awhile."
Dave said medical issues also are a concern.
"There are some good doctors here, but we have to go to the Valley to find ones who honor our insurance," he said.
Most experts agree that what Payson needs are businesses that offer decent and even high-paying jobs.
According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the per capita income in Gila County in 2000 was $18,375 compared to Maricopa County at $28,329 and Pima County at $23,705 --hich proves the wide gap between urban and rural areas.
Just some of the problems
Judy Miller with the Gila Community College Small Business Development Center (SBDC) said unfortunately she doesn't see Payson growing in the number of good paying jobs any time soon.
"Only 3 percent of our land in Gila County is privately owned, so if a company wants to open up a big business here, they have a tough time finding land or space for it," she said.
The majority of the land is owned by state and federal governments. Also, she said, many big companies like to be close to major airports. And while Payson is only 90 minutes away from the Phoenix airport, that's not close enough for many big businesses.
"We also see a lot of well-educated people moving to Payson, many near retirement or retired who only want to work part time, so employers don't offer them good pay or benefits," Miller said. "That's why you'll see educated people working at Wal-Mart or for a tourism related business, most of which don't pay well."
Miller counsels people about opening up their own business.
"It's very difficult running your own business and a lot of businesses don't make it," she said. "Most people don't plan ahead and don't realize what goes into owning your own business. They have grandma's wonderful spaghetti recipe and they think that's all they need to open a restaurant, and that's not true."
The SBDC assists people who want to start their own business. Miller helps people investigate new business opportunities, teaches them how to develop a business plan, shows owners how to keep their financial records and do inventory control procedures.
Miller said since it's so tough running a business, she also helps business owners apply for government bids and to get certified for special bids available for women and minority-owned businesses.
For several years, the Payson Regional Economic Development Corporation (PREDC) has worked diligently to spread the word that the Rim country is a great place to do business. Scott Flake heads up that office.
"We have a big challenge here," he said. "Our unemployment is low, at about 3.5 percent, but a lot of people here are underemployed. That is, they are highly educated working in jobs that don't pay them well at all. More and more are commuting to the Valley to work. That's where the critical mass is and more job opportunities."
He said Payson's economic picture is strained due to several factors. He agrees a shortage of land and buildings is a problem, plus he said many companies don't have a clear picture of what Payson is like, and the workforce that is available to them. Beautiful mountains and clean air aren't enough for some.
"We don't have a good transportation system, no railroad for example to ship products and our airport is very small," he said. "Plus, many companies need a big supply of water, so once they find out about our water situation, some companies stop looking at us. We try to find businesses that are high tech and ones that will bring higher paying jobs. I know everybody's after them, too, and it's tough."
Location, location, location
The Scullys admit that if real estate prices were low here, it would be a lot easier on people. They said their home they had built two years ago, is worth about $100,000 more today. So, while they'd make a good profit on their current home, they couldn't move into a home of similar size for anything less here because most homes have gone up in price.
The Scullys talk about their good friends who recently left Payson due to the tree tax and other small-town issues.
"They moved outside of Albuquerque and live on a golf course, have lots of doctors and medical care options there than they had here, and it's cheaper for them to live there than it was here," Dave said.
It used to be that housing was less here than in Phoenix, but now that's not necessarily true --hey're about the same.
According to Sally Cantrill, owner of Payson Realty Executives, two years ago, the median home price in Payson was $170,000. According to Phoenix Realtors, the median price for the greater Phoenix area during that same time frame was $153,610. During this past year it's gone up in both locations. Now the median home in Payson costs $205,000 and in the greater Phoenix area is about the same depending upon which area of the Valley you look at.
Get a job
With more and more people moving to Payson some are wondering -- what kind of jobs can people with families or early retirees find here?
"I see us getting the attention of technological companies soon," Miller said. "Although most tech companies will pick the Phoenix Metro area over us, we hope they'll see that we have a lot of educated people here who would like to work, and pick Payson for at least a small part of their projects."
Many of these companies like to remain anonymous, she said, but there are some companies at least considering Payson.
Miller is pleased about Home Depot coming to town, offering many jobs, some part-time positions may eventually have insurance and other benefits, she said.
Flake also is excited about the Environmental Economic Communities Organization opening up a renewable technologies center here. Although it will initially only employ two or three people, Flake believes it's a step in the right direction. He said the company is devoted to the restoration of Arizona's forests, and the responsible harvest and use of forest resources.
Looking at the big picture, the Scullys are considering their options.
"I don't know what we're going to do for sure, but we are certainly looking to see if there are more affordable towns elsewhere that offer much of what Payson does," Charlotte said.
Despite the obstacles, Flake and Miller are optimistic. They and other business leaders are being creative and working hard to turn things around. When committed to a cause usually sharp, creative people working together can move mountains or at least a few pine trees.