2007 Rim Country Highlights

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What a year.

Ghosts in the Grille, a body in the trunk, a dog in the woods -- 2007 delivered a slew of stories that ranged from the clearly significant to the merely strange.

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The Whispering Pines Fire Department called on the expertise of Tonto Rim Search and Rescue to assist in extrication of a 27-year-old man, who attempted to jump off a cliff into the East Verde River near Water Wheel Campground Saturday, June 23.

The fledgling Star Valley scrounged for water and tripled both its area and its budget.

The venerable Town of Payson suffered a wave of resignations, plus squabbles about everything from immigration laws to road extensions.

We lost some beloved residents, recorded some chilling murders, celebrated some big victories and savored the brave, odd and endearing characters that make this such a surprising and satisfying place to live.

So ghost hunters heard voices in the bar and grill, Sammy came home after a mysterious five-month absence, a "nice kid" met a bad end, wild fires gave us another scare, floods brought out the best in rescuers, we lost a city manager, a police chief and a superintendent of schools -- and somehow or another we all muddled through yet another year of interesting happenings.

So here's a round up of some of our favorite stories this year. Forgive us if we left out something delightfully weird, heartwarming or important. There's just much of all of that going on, here in Rim Country.

JANUARY

The Rim Country lost one of its most distinctive voices, with the passing of noted author and historian Marguerite Noble, who died Jan. 1, 2007 -- a month shy of her 97th birthday.

She won many awards in her long career, including recognition as one of the first 10 CultureKeepers by the Westin Kierland Resort Arizona Centennial Project and the Spirit of Arizona award. Best known locally as author of the books, "Filaree" and "Crossing Trails," she frequently uently wrote about the region's history and spoke before community groups before her health began to fail.

Ghosts at the Grille

A sensational search for ghosts hiding in the Main Street Grille drew two standing room crowds to hear a presentation by representatives of Arizona Paranormal Investigations. The API volunteers were in Payson to share findings from more than 20 hours of video and audio investigation at the Main Street Grille in early November 2006. Participating in the ghost hunt in November were seven people from API and several local people.

The ghost-hunters reported they sensed the spirit of a female child, a woman and a man. During one of the investigative sessions, the group asked how many spirits were present -- one member said he heard a woman say, "There are five," and another said she heard a woman say, "There are four."

Bigger, better grocery store for Pine

After a year of construction and waiting, a new and much heftier Ponderosa Market opened in Pine with displays of everything from fresh-baked bread to brands of wine to rival major grocery store chains. The new location, just a block north of the old one, offers the residents of Pine a bakery, coffee shop and liquor store in addition to an all-purpose grocery store.

A step closer to community trails

The Payson Parks and Recreation Department took another step toward completion of a trail system that was the brainchild of Payson Councilor Andy Romance, after he suggested a planned fuel break around the town could double as the key structure for a comprehensive trail system, linked to a network of existing trails.

The search for a superintendent

The Payson Unified School District hired Search Solutions to help find a new superintendent of schools, upon learning that Sue Myers would retire at the end of the school year in 2007.

Fire department mergers pondered

The Northern Gila County Fire District Merger Study Groups launched its investigation on the pros and cons of merging five small, rural fire districts serving the Rim Country.

FEBRUARY

Design and review board

The Payson Town Council mulled the possibility of setting up a design and review board to oversee new developments, but heard mostly criticism of the idea from residents. Jim Garner worried that the regulatory board will make its own rules and complained that non-Payson residents could serve on the board. When Councilor Tim Fruth also questioned that provision, Town Attorney Sam Streichman said the ordinance was written to give a person outside Payson with a lot of expertise on certain topics a chance to serve.

Councilors Ed Blair and Su Connell then suggested as a compromise, that non-residents with experience could serve on the board in an advisory role.

Payson beautification urged

The town's Beautification Task Force urged neighborhoods to get on the cleanup bandwagon. The task force vowed to concentrate on a commercial streetscape plan initiative, neighborhood cleanup, incentives for neighborhoods that take action and the Highway 87 roundabout.

Struggle for new jail

The county began its push for new jail and justice facilities in earnest, with an eye-opening tour of existing structures for 10 members from the Gila County Facilities Planning Committee.

The two-hour tour through the Gila County Courthouse showcased the overcrowded courtrooms and dangerously packed jail under the guidance of sheriff's deputies and the superior court clerk. The committee also listened to an hour-long presentation at Gila Community College by the executive director of the Arizona Counties Insurance Pool, Bill Hardy, who discussed the efforts of other Arizona counties to cope with inadequate jail and court facilities.

Search for superintendent narrowed

The four finalists seeking the job of superintendent of the Payson Unified School District met with nearly 50 community members, teachers and parents at Rim Country Middle School to answer questions and discuss their philosophies for helping a school district succeed. The finalists included Don Clark, Michael Melton, Casey O'Brien and Roy Sandoval, after Linda Nelson dropped out to take a job in Chicago.

Dialysis center announced

Plans for a new dialysis center that will eventually accommodate up to 200 patients in Payson drew enthusiastic applause at a black-and-white ball held to raise money for the facility. The center will bring back dialysis treatment locally, which the Rim Country lost when Payson Renal Care closed in December 2004.

Burning body leads to three arrests

Police arrested three Payson men for first-degree murder after finding the body of Roger Patrick Watson, 31, in a burning car on Cracker Jack Mine Road. Payson police charged Thomas Paul Georgatos, 35, with murder, conspiracy, arson and destruction of evidence.

Scott Bernard McGeough, 34, and William Merrill Sweatt, 21, face charges of conspiracy, arson, hindering prosecution and destruction of evidence, among others.

Watson's family said that he had some drug issues, "but was not a bad kid."

Watson was found in the trunk of a car that he'd borrowed on Feb. 19 to buy a phone card. Police told the family that Watson had been shot in the head at close range, apparently inside Georgatos' garage, then driven to Cracker Jack Mine Road in the trunk of the car.

MARCH

Payson Council imposes immigration law

The Payson Town Council, on a 5-2 vote, approved a get-tough law that will revoke the local business license of any company that doesn't sign an affidavit promising to confirm the immigration status of all employees -- and impose a potential fine of $20,000.

Starting in July, the new law also requires businesses to list their business license number on any advertisement, including on work vehicles.

The new ordinance spurred heated debate before it was passed by the council, with dissenting votes from councilors Ed Blair and Andy Romance.

Business owners expressed mixed feelings, with many saying they already check work status and others predicting the law will scare off workers with "devastating" impacts on businesses like restaurants.

Yolanda Perez, who admitted she was in the United States illegally, implored the council not to pass the ordinance.

The new law will impose a hardship on hardworking people trying to feed their families and on the town's business community, Perez said. "Send the bad Mexicans back to Mexico, not us," she said.

PRMC named among nation's 100 top hospitals

Payson Regional Medical Center was named one of the nation's top 100 small, community hospitals by Solucient, based on excellence in clinical outcomes, patient safety, financial performance, efficiency, and growth in patient volume.

Library discard sold to French gallery for $900

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The 900-acre Promontory Fire started Sunday, hours after another nearby wildfire, the Ponderosa Fire, was contained.

The Payson Public Library regularly discards books that no one checks out, but they routinely ask a group of volunteers to take a last look before the old books get tossed.

Fortunately, Library Friends President Donna Hopkins, Pete Rothenbach and Elaine Falkner looked closely when the library put a dusty art book in the discard pile.

The volunteers figured the book on Francis Bacon might be worth something, so they offered it for sale on the Internet. To their delight, an art gallery in France happily paid $900.

"It was one of the top moneymakers," Morris said. "Now we have another one up for $1,200."

APRIL

New services for kids

The new Payson Institute of Learning, a nonprofit corporation formed to offer diagnostic and instructional services for children, adolescents and adults, held a five-course dinner with wine pairings dinner benefit at Gerardo's.

Pines face insect infestation

Pinyon needle scale, an insect that feeds on the sap in the tree's needles, have infested the pines in southeast Payson due to the current drought conditions. The scale-infested trees were first identified in Round Valley in 1986, but a decade of drought has stressed the trees and decreased the flow of sap that provides the tree's best defense against insects.

Middle school gets remodeling money

The Arizona School Facilities Board awarded $1,275,178 to Rim Country Middle School for remodeling.

Payson rejects police contracts

The Payson Town Council, by a 4-2 vote, rejected providing police service to Star Valley for $258,000. Star Valley and Payson also found themselves at odds about a safe-yield study of the Tower Well.

Domestic violence victims get help

In an effort to protect victims of domestic violence, sexual, child or elder abuse, the Gila Family Advocacy Center opened one of just 16 centers in the state where victims can tell their story and get help in a single, safe environment, rather than repeating their story endlessly to police, prosecutors and social workers. The center integrates law enforcement, Child Protective Services, prosecutors and social services.

Hot rods a big draw

Thousands of people flocked down to Payson's Main Street to see the hot rods and classic cars at the 14th Annual Beeline Cruise-In.

"Sammy" comes home

Back in November, Payson resident Shannon Crandall lost control of her car on Highway 260 and plowed into a tree at the Camp Verde turnoff, snapping it in half and landing herself in the hospital for months.

When she awoke her first question was, "Where's Sammy? Where's my dog?" Her beloved chow-golden retriever mix had been riding in the back seat on that terrible day.

Rescuers working to get her out of the car said Sammy was running around the car as they worked, but bolted into the woods when the medical helicopter arrived. The family searched for weeks, but never gave up hope. Five months later, they got a call from Pine resident Buddy Randall, who'd spent two weeks coaxing a skittish dog to his back porch, where he got her number off his collar. Sammy actually gained five pounds during his long and still mysterious disappearance. "I wish Sammy could talk, I really do," said Crandall.

Nurses get training center

Payson Regional Medical Centers held a grand opening for the Gracie Lee Haught Education and Resource Center, providing a place where nurses can improve their critical skills. Practicing nurses also use the education center to enhance skills and prepare for career advancement testing. It is also being used by area fire departments for emergency medical training.

Payson gallery opens

Minette Richardson realized a her longtime dream when she opened Down the Street, a co-op art gallery in April. All 17 artists were present for the launch of the Rim Country's latest cultural institution opened in the 100-year-old Platt house, which once held Richardson's hair salon.

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The Payson Town Council's choice to open meetings with prayer is a reflection of community.

MAY

More water for Pine and Strawberry

A year of effort to find new water sources for residents of Pine and Strawberry, reached a milestone May 1 when the The Pine Strawberry Water Improvement District board and the Pine Water Company finalized an agreement to drill, equip and interconnect a deep aquifer well known as the "K2 Well Project."

Payson provides cops for Star Valley

The Payson Town Council voted 4-3 to provide police service to the town of Star Valley. The contract tract for $258,300 per year will expire June 30, 2009 and provides two additional officers and vehicles to cope with the added workload.

Star Valley wrestles with general plan

Eight Star Valley residents, including two members of the town council, met at the Lamplighter RV Resort Clubhouse to go over the process of creating a general plan, which the state requires all incorporated communities with more than 2,500 to adopt.

Star Valley triples in size

The Star Valley Town Council voted 7-0 to triple the size of the fledgling town by annexing 18 square miles of national forest land. Now standing at 24 square miles, Star Valley ranks as the largest town in Gila County in terms of incorporated geographical size.

Top business people honored

Payson Regional Economic Development Corporation honored local business people. Cari Day, owner of Macky's Grill, was named Businesswoman of the Year. Payson Regional Medical Center CEO Chris Wolf was named Businessman of the Year. Kaibab Industries, logging company turned developer of Sawmill Crossing, Sawmill Theaters and Whiting Brothers gasoline station, was chosen Business of the Year.

Payson Art Walk joins Studio Tour

The inaugural First Friday Art and Antiques Walk was held on Main Street in Payson. The monthly Payson event will hopefully build on the interest in the arts created by the annual 'Neath the Rim Studio Tour, during which 26 local artists opened their homes and studios to the public.

Missing riders honored

The 2007 Main Event rodeo parade was a tribute to three longtime rodeo committee members who died this past year. Al Ayers, Jim Barrett and Walt Prychodnik were honored by riderless horses led along the parade route.

Fire scorches forest

The Promontory Fire began May 13 on the steep, densely tree-covered slopes near the Promontory Lookout. Within a day, the fire had burned to within three miles of Bear Canyon Lake and 1.5 miles from Christopher Creek. Firefighters worked to protect 300 residences, 10 commercial buildings and 50 outbuildings.

By May 18, 667 people were battling the blaze. The 4,040-acre fire was 90 percent contained by May 21, at a cost of more than $4.2 million.

Schools celebrate graduations

This year, students at Payson High School received a total of $428,735 in scholarships -- $71,575 from local organizations. The public support helped produce Payson High School's graduating class of 150. Payson Center for Success and Payson Education Center each graduated nine students.

Rabbit breeding success

May 5 in Tolleson at the 4-H Maricopa American Rabbit Breeder's Association Show, Sabrina Goodman took Reserve in Show (second) for all of the youth for her Netherland Dwarf doe, and first place in showmanship for 4-H.

JUNE

Payson gets new police chief

Don Engler replaced Gordy Gartner as Payson's police chief after a national search resulted in a decision to promote the longtime Payson officer. A citizen's task force recommended him for the position in the first place.

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The mutton bustin' event at the Payson Rodeo is always a crowd-pleaser.

Hollywood comes to Rim Country

In May and June, director/writer Jeff Santo made the independent documentary film "Jake's Corner" at Jake's Corner with many locals playing extras. Sylvia Domas, the bartender at Jake's Corner, played herself. Joe Miracle, Doc Holliday and Royce O'Donnell played extras or stand-in parts in the movie. June Schranz was on the set to teach Colton Rogers, a 12-year-old (not local) actor. The drama is about former University of Arizona Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Dunn's life after football and the raising of his nephew. It is available on DVD.

Star Valley worries about water

In an emergency meeting June 14, the Star Valley Town Council voted 5-0 to take any legal means available to take over the portion of Brooke Utilities that provides water to the town. Meanwhile, the council actually tripled the town's budget in its second year of operation -- $4.2 million up from $1.4 million. Notable increases include the addition of $1 million for the acquisition of a water utility, and $500,000 for the acquisition of a sewer utility.

Sports and then some

The American Cancer Society staged a run on the the Payson High School football field that raised close to $40,000. Hundreds of dancers squared off for the 28th annual Rim Country Square and Round Dance Festival. Payson Longhorn wrestling coach Dave LaMotte held a Summer Wrestling Clinic. Little League player Miguel Mendoza pitched a near perfect game against Show Low (Payson won 12-0) in the All-Star Tournament. When the dust settled after a two-hour battle for the Town of Payson Parks and Recreation Adult Coed Competitive Division crown, Dietz Team-12-Pak emerged victorious 41-36 over Ludtke Home Builders.

Three hundred girls softball players descended on Payson June 23 and 24 for the Triple Crown USA Payson Championships. The tournament creates an estimated $250,000 positive economic impact within the community, said Bill Schwind, then-director of Payson Parks and Recreation.

Little League coach Tom Belcher hung up his cleats after an 11-year career. His final duty was coaching the Payson All-Star Team at the area tournament in Flagstaff at the end of June.

Let's have a hand for that young cowboy

Payson High School sophomore, 16-year-old Trevor Haught won the state title by staying on top of a very irritated 1,500-pound bronco for eight seconds.

July

Payson funds roadwork

The Payson Town Council allocated about 10 percent of its $39-million budget to street and road improvements -- about the same as last year.

Governor blocks Fish retrial

Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano vetoed a bill that might have granted a new trial to Harold Fish, who was convicted on second-degree murder charges in the 2004 murder of Grant Kuenzli. The bill would have made a self-defense statute passed in April 2006 retroactive to any cases that had not gone to jury on that date, which Fish's had not.

Star Valley still looking for water

The Star Valley Town Council contracted with the fiscal firm Stone and Youngberg to go through the process and financial implications of a future water company purchase.

Local stars head for Junior Olympics

Tonto Apache Track and Field stars Jarred Begay, Kindal Begay, Hunter Doka and Cassie Johnson all qualified for the Junior Olympics finals by finishing in the top three in their respective events in the state championships in June. Doka, 10, ultimately earned a bronze medal in the shot put in the National Junior Olympic Track and Field Championships in July. His finish was the best ever for Tonto Apache athletes.

Payson goes digital

The Town of Payson unveiled a new e-government system on the town's Web site. The system allows residents to access information and track complaints.

Redevelopment focus broadened

The Payson Town Council voted to replace the Main Street Redevelopment Area Management position and, instead, created a new town department to focus on tourism and economic vitality for the whole town. The new Tourism and Economic Vitality Department's director will report to the town manager.

Star Valley moves in

Star Valley officials moved into the new town hall in front of the Star Valley Mobile Home Park on Highway 260, vacating its temporary quarters in the Star Valley Baptist Church, where it still holds its council meetings.

Museum shuts down

The Museum of Rim Country Archaeology closed its doors after the Payson Womans Club raised the rent and denied the museum a lease because of doubt about whether the nonprofit group could make the payments.

August

Revamped casino opens

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Arizona Highways photo editor Pete Ensenberger judged the hundreds of entries in the annual Northern Gila County Fair photo contest.

The new Mazatzal Hotel and Casino opened in August after two years of construction and improvements, with 40 rooms, a meeting room, a pool, and wider aisles, an expanded card room and new games in the casino.

Payson Rodeo ropes them in

The Rim Country was filled with Western revelry as the World's Oldest Continuous Rodeo descended upon the Payson Event Center. In addition to a breadth of rodeo events, festivities included a mock council meeting, parade and many dances and parties around town.

SEPTEMBER

Resignation roils Payson

Payson Town Manager Fred Carpenter resigned after five years in the top job. Mayor Bob Edwards denied rumors that Carpenter chose to resign over being fired. "That's not the case," he said. "No one asked me to get Fred to retire." Edwards said that Carpenter had been considering retirement for quite some time.

... And Pine

Meanwhile, oft-embattled Pine-Strawberry Fire Chief Bill Dekker also resigned as the fire board met to debate whether to renew his contract. After an executive session, the board returned to open session and unanimously accepted Dekker's resignation.

Jail problems spur debate

The lively debate about overcrowded court and jail facilities provoked a clash among a quartet of Payson notables. Payson Councilor Mike Vogel and former jails committee member Ken Volz argued in favor of a new justice center at Main Street and Highway 87, funded with a new half-cent sales tax. Payson Councilor Ed Blair and Leon Keddington argued against that plan. The quartet deliberated and answered questions for nearly two hours at a meeting of the Northern Gila County Democratic group.

Roundup again wins top award

The Payson Roundup repeated as the state's top non-daily newspaper for the ninth consecutive year, in a statewide competition that included editorial, circulation and advertising judged by the Arizona Newspapers Association.

Payson merges departments

The Payson Town Council voted 4-3 to abolish Bob Smith's human resources director position and merge his department with finances. Vice Mayor Tim Fruth and councilors John Wilson and Andy Romance voted against both measures.

OCTOBER

Happy Birthday Payson

Payson celebrated its 125th anniversary in October. So volunteers made up fliers, pounded the pavement for sponsors and made sure advertising for the 125th was statewide.

Property taxes rise

Gila County residents found out they will be paying higher property taxes when deputy Gila County Manager John Nelson noted that the increase in property values will likely overwhelm a planned 23-cent average decrease in the county's primary property tax rate in 2007.

Former Payson town officials complain

Former Chief Fiscal Officer Glenn Smith, an employee of the town for more than 10 years, questioned the actions of the mayor and town council. He questioned the reasons behind the resignation of town manager Fred Carpenter, the abolition of the director position in the human resources department and Debi Galbraith's promotion to the slot of interim town manager.

NOVEMBER

Local group supports troops

The Payson Supply Line, a group of veterans and friends in Payson, worked hard throughout 2007 to prepare care packages to U.S. troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Shipments included mosquito repellent wipes, black cotton socks, disposable cameras, solid deodorants, scented shampoo and conditioner, ponytail holders, canned nuts and chips, candy, miniboxes of cereals, DVD movies, international calling cards, Chapsticks, gum, baby wipes, soap, tampons, crackers, squeeze peanut butter, canisters of drink mix, small-size fruit cups, medicated Band-Aids, AA batteries, sunblock, eyedrops, toothpaste, scented candles, note cards, raisins, magazines, puzzle books, vitamins and hand and body warmers.

Officer honored

Payson area DPS Sgt. Vern Havens was presented with the Officer of the Quarter Award for the third quarter for his role in the county's successful prosecution of Robert Slover, who was found guilty Sept. 27 of one count of negligent homicide and two counts of misdemeanor DUI, in the November 2004 death of 66-year-old Payson resident, William D. Wardell.

December

Payson schools excel

Payson Elementary and Rim Country Middle were among the nine schools designated "exemplary" in December for their successful implementation of positive behaviors, interventions and support (PBIS) by the Arizona State Department of Education at a December conference. "A school must have a high level of implementation to achieve exemplary status," said John Umbreit, a University of Arizona professor.

Rain at last

The final months of 2007 brought plenty of rain to Rim Country, mitigating a long, brutal drought. National weather observer Anna Mae Deming measured 5.10 inches of precipitation on Saturday, Dec. 1. Since the Payson area averages 22 inches of rain per year, one storm delivered nearly a quarter of the annual tally. The resulting floodwaters nearly swept away Payson resident Merritt Pittman's SUV as he tried to cross the East Verde River on Houston-Mesa Road Dec. 7 before bystanders and sheriff's deputies rescued him.

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