Outwitting The Good Old Boys

Single mother turned developer coaxes Chilson Ranch project through the maze

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As a girl, she snuck off to get her pilot's license. As a young woman, she became the family breadwinner. As a diamond broker, she roamed the streets of New York with a couple million dollars worth of jewels in her case. As a wheeler-dealer in a man's world, she's now bedeviling officials, charming bankers, peddling dreams -- all to build a visionary subdivision in the midst of a record-breaking housing slump that could become a Payson icon.

In truth, Hallie Jackman has spent much of her life figuring out how to do what the boys do -- without giving up the whole girl thing.

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Hallie Jackman explains her project, Chilson Ranch, which involves building a waterfall off the hill in the background. Water will flow through Chilson Ranch and into the Green Valley Park lakes.

And mostly it's working out -- although it has demanded that she ignore lots of advice, smile in the face of put-downs and repeatedly gamble everything she had when she couldn't afford to lose.

It has also involved leaving in her wake a string of confounded doubters and fuming critics, exasperated at what "that woman" has done now.

But she figures it will all be worth it if she actually builds the $30-million Chilson Ranch development, which will include about 160 luxury condos, a man-made waterfall that will cleanse Green Valley Park lakes, a meandering artificial stream and a three-story block of commercial buildings in which small-business owners can own their own space.

She has been pushing the project up the hill for the past five years, like the Sysiphis whose boulder rolled back down to the bottom of the mountain every night.

At a recent meeting, not only did the Payson Town Council finally approve her plan, but Mayor Kenny Evans unveiled a bold proposal to use a combination of grants, fees and donations to build a waterfall and artificial stream that will cool and filter lake water. Moreover, the project will interject several hundred residents and a chunk of new commercial space at one end of Main Street, which the town has been struggling for years to transform into a pedestrian-friendly tourist draw.

Along the way, Jackman has served on the planning commission at both the state and local level, chaired Rotary and lent a hand to an array of community projects. She has also driven a succession of council people and Payson bureaucrats half crazy with her half-joking, eye-rolling, finger-wagging, gossip-loving, good-natured, cussed persistence.

"Living well is the best revenge," she laughs of her long struggle, which at times took her to the edge of losing everything, but which now seems all but assured to build From page 1C

something lasting.

However, right after the long interview punctuated with plausible conspiracy theories, delighted anecdotes and shrewd stories of what it takes for a woman to get along in the boys club even when she's not a member, she had to go off to straighten out the latest wrinkle in her long struggle.

She had her Chilson Ranch grading plan all done, but then the town asked her to spend another $150,000 on engineering to work for the proposed waterfall and artificial stream. In the meantime, she sought permission to dump dirt she bought from the contractor that was remodeling the elementary school. To her surprise, the town said she'd have to put up a $10,000 bond to ensure she didn't just leave the piles sitting there. After five days of delay, the banks proposed a $2,500 fee for a $10,000 bond, involvement of the mayor and several layers of the bureaucracy -- she just took the money out of her dwindling savings, hoping she'll get it back when she eventually does bulldoze the piles of dirt into the grade of the property.

After a thousand such details, coupled with meetings where she'd been told she could never develop the project because she was 50, a woman, and lacking in development experience, she views the whole thing as some bizarre but entertaining puzzle box -- and dedicates herself to the proposition that she who laughs last, laughs best.

The roots to her driven effort to make it in a man's world without giving up her interest in award-winning chili jelly recipes go back to a conventional girlhood with unconventional ambitions.

She's the youngest of four sisters born to a devoted, at-home mother who sold cosmetics on the side and an engineer who worked on the Apollo moon trips. The family moved often, so she attended six different schools in 12 years.

Her father drafted her to play golf every Sunday, but also immersed himself in Little League -- back when girls couldn't play.

"Now tell me this isn't a man who wanted to have boys," laughs Jackman now. "I never felt it growing up -- but looking back I can see it," she said.

At 16, her mother refused to let her learn how to fly. So Jackman batted her eyes and talked to her daddy who funded the first round of lessons under the table so they could figure out if Hallie liked it and then sell her mother on the idea.

She was a cheerleader, except when she didn't make the squad. She was on the track team until she figured out it wasn't cool and changed to tennis -- a subtle rebellion against her father who wanted her to become a golfer. She skated by in her classes, smart enough to pull good grades with minimal effort. And then at 18, she married a 25-year-old fellow who had already started his own music promotion business.

Three kids followed at three-year intervals and she found herself essentially running the business, raising the kids and wondering at the emotional absence of her husband. The marriage died away after 13 years. The court awarded him the business, but he paid only minimal child support. She soon found herself the sole provider for three kids ranging in age from 3 to 10.

She did some freelance ad writing and was marketing director for a night club. She had to make her way as the family's sole provider at a time when some employers required pregnancy tests before making a job offer and interviewers routinely asked how she would take care of her kids or whether she was on birth control.

"I guess those things did shape me," she says now, thinking back on the successions of indignities that continue to this day when a woman enters a male-dominated field.

Then she got an offer to manage a store for Stirling Jewelers, which would require her to pack up the kids and move from Indiana to Kentucky to do something she'd never done before -- manage a retail business.

So she did.

"I'm a quick learner," she shrugs. But like the divorce, the move revealed her tendency to take big risks and make hard choices.

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Hallie Jackman plays her with rescue dog in front of her home in Payson.

She remained in the jewelry business for years. She was married again briefly, to a man who turned out to have serious mental health issues, but who convinced her to quit her job and open her own store.

Once her kids were grown, she had the freedom to travel so she took a job with a national chain as a diamond buyer. The world of diamond buyers is dominated in large part by a core of Jewish families. But she made her way into that normally closed circle with her typical mix of shrewd hard work, unflappable persistence, a vivid sense of the absurd and a charm that irritates the objects of her sharp and deflating humor, but wins over almost everyone else.

"People would ask me if I was afraid walking down the street with a couple million dollars worth of diamonds on me, but I'd say ‘who would suspect me?'" says Jackman, an energetic woman whose pale blue eyes glint with humor, even when she's squinting -- and whose laughter overflows often with a hoot and a cackle. "When they insisted on body guards, I always made them walk ahead of me -- so no one would notice me."

Even she can't explain exactly how a career in marketing and diamonds leads logically to being one of the few woman developers in Arizona.

It goes something like this.

About 11 years ago, her mother and sister moved to Payson. On a visit, Jackman fell in love with the town and soon decided to make it her base -- since she spent most of her time traveling all across the country buying diamonds and supplying stores in the chain.

Then about six years ago, she decided to go for the lifestyle -- and put down roots in Payson.

Casting about for a way to pay the bills, she took her sister's suggestion and started a business that would handle payrolls on a contract basis for Rim Country businesses. That business showed her how hard small businesses struggled to keep their doors open as a result of high commercial rents.

That observation led to her concept of a project that would make it possible for small-business owners to actually buy the space they needed in a larger commercial building and perhaps a condo across the street.

Ironically, she started out thinking that she could build housing priced for working class residents -- since the 29-acre parcel had zoning that would allow some 450 units. But she soon found that the $15,000 per unit town and sewer district fees, the cost of the land, the profit margins on luxury homes, the amenities required by the town, the reactions of the neighbors and the restrictions on programs designed to encourage work-force housing all made a high-end project easier to sell to both to the town and the banks.

So in the end, the two-, four-, and six-unit condos will likely sell for $300,000 to $600,000 each -- a price she hopes people will pay as a result of the meandering artificial stream, waterfall cascading down the hillside, 10 acres of open space, and easy access to both Main Street and Green Valley Park.

She said that she has about $2.5 million of her own money invested, most of it accumulated in the past eight years as a result of shrewd land sales. She essentially has poured all her money and all her retirement savings into the project, only to see it languish. One year dragged into the next, with no guarantee she would ever be able to complete the project much less recover all the money she'd invested.

"It's pretty scary if I think about it." But she's a gambler. "I don't own a casino -- but I do buy dirt," she laughs.

But then, right at the beginning of the project -- Chuck Jackman wandered into her company office on some errand or another. The longtime Payson resident and landscaper is one of the stalwarts of the Hashknife Pony Express annual fund-raising effort. The pair hit it off immediately and Hallie says that after a lifetime of being on her own, she had found the perfect man for her.

And maybe that gave her that extra margin of courage it took to bet everything on her vision -- despite all the setbacks.

"I really think we're supposed to have this," she said. "It's been a life experience -- let me tell you. And if anyone had asked sensible people at the start if there was any way we could do this, they'd have said ‘no way.'"

But then, that's what her mother said about getting a pilot's license and look how that worked out.

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