Editor's note: As Rim Country struggles to find its footing on the path that leads to balanced growth, developers are often seen through different lenses. The Roundup offers a peek inside the lives of three sometimes controversial men who make Payson their home, and make homes for Payson.
G. Michael Horton operates Mogollon Development Group out of an unassuming brick-red trailer toward the east end of Star Valley.
Vehicles stir up dust as they bump into the adjacent unpaved parking lot.
Crossing the porch, the decor of Horton's ragtag building changes to a contemporary office with ash-blond wood floors and like-colored desks -- unpretentious, yet modern -- illuminated by halogen lighting.
Horton has been in the development business for more than 30 years. And during those decades, he's weathered the gas crisis of the mid-70s, the savings and loan scandal of the late 80s, the recession of the early 90s, and the current real estate boom.
"You have vicissitudes of the market so it's a risky business," 62-year-old Horton said. "I don't mind calculated, well-reasoned risks."
During Horton's childhood, he absorbed more experiences than many people do in a lifetime. The multicultural years of his youth brought with it flexibility, a sense of adventure, and a curiosity of the world.
Horton was a military brat. His father jumped from base to base throughout the United States and overseas, taking the family with him.
In Okinawa, Japan, Horton attended elementary school; in 1953, the Hortons returned to America; and three years later, they settled in Arizona.
Horton excelled in school and earned a full-ride scholarship to Princeton University. But Army blood pulsed in his veins so he quit the cerebral life of an Ivy League student and headed to the recruiter's office.
By that time, the Vietnam War had saturated the American consciousness. Instead of sticking flowers in his hair and following the Grateful Dead, Horton immersed himself in the military.
He conducted field tests for M-26A grenade and M-16 rifle modifications; he attended the Defense Languages Institute and became a Russian linguist; and he earned top-security clearance and applied his knack of languages to decode military messages.
And then his military career took off, literally, at officer candidate school in Fort Lee, Va.
With Airborne wings on his lapel, the quartermaster company commander headed to Long Binh, Vietnam where he earned a Bronze Star and the rank of first lieutenant.
In 1969, after discharge, civilian life held endless possibilities.
Back in the states, Horton bypassed the hippies on Haight-Ashbury and resumed his education at the University of California-Berkeley. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in comparative literature.
Not long after starting graduate school at Berkeley, Horton, who, for extra money, had managed apartment buildings as an undergrad, dropped out of school and moved back to Arizona in the mid-1970s.
That's when he found his niche in land development.
"It's very interesting and diverse," he said. "If you do it right, it can be lucrative."
He started purchasing vacant lots near the center of Phoenix where he built moderate-income apartments. From there, he progressed to larger residential projects, shopping malls and high-rises.
In the late 1970s, the Hortons purchased property in Payson and made their home in Haigler Creek, about an hour away.
Six years ago, Horton moved his wife, Debra, and daughter, Shannon, to the Rim Country.
Despite public perception, Horton said the local construction and development industry is a pivotal element of the region's economy.
"People perceive developers as exploiters," Horton said. "But it's a very consistent way to contribute to the community. You're creating infrastructure and sustaining future jobs."
Engineering background piques creativity for Kevin Sokol
Even as a child in Omaha, Neb., builder and developer Kevin Sokol liked to create things.
"We didn't have cable TV or video games, so we were always outdoors either playing sports or building things," he said.
Sokol's dexterity and knack for science and math inspired an interest in engineering.
After earning a master's degree in electrical engineering from the University of Nebraska, he moved to Arizona where he worked as an engineer at McDonnell Douglas Helicopter Company in Mesa.
There he embarked on a second master's degree, this time in business administration.
Sokol, now a Payson Planning and Zoning Commissioner, attended correspondence courses through Arizona State University offered by the company.
One class in particular illuminated the freedom of self-employment. It was a course on entrepreneurship taught by Claude Olney, a self-made multi-millionaire and pioneer of infomercials.
Olney wrote the book, "Where There's a Will There's an ‘A,'" and marketed the improve-your-grades program over the airwaves.
"His (entrepreneur) class was all about bringing in people who had successfully gone out on their own," Sokol said. "Claude was always talking about subcontracting out your own home. He said the easiest way to increase net worth was to subcontract your own home."
That's when Sokol experienced the satisfaction of building custom homes.
The first was his own -- a 2,800-square-foot custom home in Alta Mesa Estates. A few years later, he built another in Ancala, a Scottsdale neighborhood.
"I was working full time and commuting 30 miles to Allied Signal at Sky Harbor Airport, writing software for jet engines," he said.
Sokol applied for his general contractor's license and purchased two lots in Chaparral Pines. In 1998, he packed up his family and moved to Payson -- three days a week he stayed in the Valley and worked at Allied Signal Engines, a subsidiary of Honeywell.
Four years ago he purchased a 14-acre tract on Rim Club Parkway, which later became Whisper Ridge.
"It was my first big project," he said. "The landowner had already rezoned the property and wanted to sell it, so I thought it would be the next logical step in my career. Developing land is a big risk. I've always been a risk-taker. There has to be a financial reward for the risk you are taking."
In less than a decade, he's completed more than 50 custom homes in Payson.
Sokol's latest subdivision, Boulder Ridge, combines environmentally appropriate architecture and socially conscious elements: work force housing for teachers, open space and recreation facilities. He's also donated two lots to the town for affordable housing. "It's going to be spectacular," Sokol said. "We want it done right."
Local developer Jeff Vaughn set into concrete 37 years ago
Jeff Vaughn has been working with framing and concrete for 37 years, and, after all this time, he still learns something new from pouring foundations.
He's somewhat of an anomaly in the construction business -- not many contractors enjoy working with concrete.
Concrete, he said, is for those who seek instant gratification and not for the faint of physical strength, and of course, manipulating the stuff takes skill.
"It keeps me young. It's hard work," he said.
Vaughn, ruddy-faced with blue eyes and a bushy gray moustache, grew up in Bishop, a hamlet in central California nestled against the Sierra Nevadas. In those days, the 1950s, Bishop was just a dot on the map, a place to fuel up and eat as you headed north on state route 395 to Mammoth Mountain.
Even as a child he had an affinity for creating something from nothing, building houses for pets out of wood.
Now he donates his handmade cedar chests to local charitable organizations.
"I've always been interested in wood," he said. "Each chest takes about 45 hours of sanding."
Vaughn's interest in land development started in the 1980s when he built his first custom home in Springerville, Utah, where he settled and built homes for 15 years.
"The sad thing is, in Utah, they were tearing down orchards," he said. "Here I build around trees, maintaining as much of the natural landscape as possible.
"Payson is my home and, for me, development is taking a piece of land and working it into something that's going to be there for hundreds of years."
When Vaughn moved to Payson with his family 11 years ago, he incorporated his enthusiasm for the outdoors, and a respect for Payson and its people with a pragmatic business plan.
"We stay within the means we know we can handle," Vaughn said.
Most of all, he admires his family: wife Debra, his son-in-law and business partner Chris Perkes, four children and seven grandchildren, most of whom continue to make Payson their home.