‘Who Are We?' Asks Mayor Evans

Evans challenges town policies on growth, promotion and identity as a 'western' town

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Less cowboy -- more Indian. Fewer regulations -- more development. Less luxury -- more apartments. Mayor Kenny Evans on Thursday challenged two years worth of town priorities, in a low-key speech full of controversial ideas before about 30 community and business leaders at a luncheon sponsored jointly by the Rim County Chamber of Commerce and the Payson Regional Economic Development Corporation.

Evans' speech marked a sharp change in tone and emphasis from the previous administration as he criticized growth restrictions, the town's attitude towards business, the shift of the rodeo grounds from Rumsey Park to the Event Center grounds and even the emphasis on cowboys in marketing the town instead of mountain air, sweeping views and the Apache tribe.

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Kenny Evans

He said the town should partner with businesses and foster their success, rather than throwing regulatory stumbling blocks in the already potholed road.

He said surveys show 37 percent of Payson visitors cite the cool summer temperatures and many of the rest say they're just trying to get away from it all. Moreover, far more people are interested in the Apaches and their vivid history than in cowboys.

"It's the vistas, it's the views," that people exclaim about when they visit Payson, not the world's oldest rodeo, which lost much of its charm and character when it was moved from a tree-shaded park near the center of town to an open area hedged with juniper on the edge of town.

Evans said the town must shift from an attitude that delays and discourages development and business innovation, to finding ways to sustain growth, promote the town and build on its existing assets.

He cited as an example the recently approved Chilson Ranch condo development which was all but "dead in the water" after years of confusion and delay, before he and the developer began working on an idea to construct a waterfall and riparian park with water pumped out of a lake in Green Valley Park.

"We were told by every single agency in town, you can't do that," he said.

By the same token, the town probably made a mistake when it moved the rodeo grounds to the edge of town. The old site "was nostalgic. It had a great feeling. I don't get that at the Event Center grounds." He said he has asked the private consultant, half-way through drawing up a master plan for the Event Center, to stop while the town figures out its new direction.

Evans said he recently came across some reports detailing the populations of various communities in 1950. At that time, Payson had 300 residents and Globe had about 7,500. In the past half century, Payson has grown to a population of about 16,000 and Globe has recorded a net increase of 16.

"You grow or you die," said Evans, who said Payson has never suffered from "exploding growth" and that the limited supply of private land will limit the town's growth without artificial constraints.

He said Payson must ride out a deep downturn in the national economy. He said he raised questions about monthly figures showing the town budget falling behind projections, but he was "thoroughly scolded" for saying the town faced a budget crisis.

Ultimately, the revenue this year fell more than $3 million short of projections, but that was largely because the town budget planners projected an increase in the wake of the two highest revenue years in the town's history. Payson spent roughly $36 million in the current fiscal year, but had projected a budget of $39 million. The proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year remains at about $36 million.

"Spending had been escalating based on projections of future revenue, which is always dangerous" especially in a small town with a narrow economic base like Payson.

He also criticized the "horrible" and "incredibly wrong-headed" idea that the best way to address problems is to first attach blame and second to turn to the government for a solution.

He said many of the town's efforts to build up Main Street, promote Payson as a "western town," create a convention center on the current rodeo grounds and control growth have all misunderstood the town's true assets.

"We spent millions creating a design along Main Street" without first really understanding "why people are here."

The town should focus on the cool weather, laid-back lifestyle, parks, streams, long views and shady forests rather than cowboys and rodeos in luring visitors and then "extracting a little profit from them" as they pass through.

Moreover, the town has missed an opportunity to team up with the Tonto Apache Tribe, whose casino is both a major town employer and a major tourist draw.

He said surveys in Phoenix have demonstrated that eight times as many people are interested in Native Americans -- especially the Apache -- as are interested in cowboys and riding.

"When you say ‘Apache' it just rolls off your tongue," said Evans, who is one-quarter Cherokee.

"We have to help the tribe capitalize on that" in marketing Payson to a sweltering population of more than 5 million living just 100 miles away.

Once the town weathers the current severe downturn, it will benefit from developments already in the pipeline valued at between $150 and $450 million. "That's pretty exciting for a little town like this," he said. "Will they all happen? Probably not. Will some happen -- most certainly."

But the town must shift from an attitude that discouraged development to attracting new businesses and supporting existing ones. Making the staff at town hall more business friendly has been "like pushing a rope."

He said he's held at least 10 meetings with town staff "to sit down and say, ‘why can't this or that be done?' Most often the answer is 'cuz."

He added that the town faces serious problems in providing the sort of motivated, educated and well-trained workforce that will attract new business and build a stable community.

That means the town must build on the training and business expertise at the local campus of Gila Community College -- and ensure that nurses, firefighters, teachers and others can afford to live in town.

And that, in turn, means making the tough decisions necessary to create affordable housing -- from embracing higher densities to allowing innovative techniques like homes and apartments that are factory-built, but assembled on site.

"We have created a situation where we are rewarding people for doing the wrong thing," by preferring four-acre lots that demand much more expensive infrastructure and services than more dense developments.

"We spread out all over the place, then we complain about the impact fees and the cost of services," said Evans. "The whole concept of zoning has spiraled out of control in the past three decades."

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