Committee Grapples With Event Center

Can expensive rodeo grounds redesign spur economy by welcoming shows and conventions?

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It's a rodeo!

It's a park!

It's a trade show!

It's Super Event Center!

At least, it will be if a miracle worker architect can pull off the challenge to transform a dusty, under-utilized rodeo grounds on the outskirts of Payson into a world class horse facility that will also lure to town weekday trade shows and conventions, while earning the love of joggers, bikers, trotters and gallopers.

A brainstorming session this week revealed the full complexity of the task facing the designers to come up with a plan to create a full-service Event Center. There are 36 acres that brim with cowboys during maybe two dozen major horse-related events and other weekly summer-time horse activities during the year, but sits silent most of the rest of the time.

"You have so many overlapping uses, with the four-leggeds and the two-leggeds," said Dan Cleland, of the challenge of accommodating both horses and people -- especially during non-rodeo events.

"And even among the two-leggeds -- you've got the bull riders and you've got the visitors coming over from the casino who don't want to get their shoes dusty."

The free-wheeling discussion on Wednesday before the Payson Event Center Technical Advisory Committee (PECTAC) at the town library launched a four-month design and public comment process. The goal is to come up with an overall design for the rodeo grounds. Already, advocates of a full-service center have mentioned price tags topping $8 million.

The brainstorming session revealed a passionate embrace of rodeo activities as the foundation of the redesign. There is also strong support for an enclosed, climate-controlled arena that could double as an exhibit area.

"This is the moment," to design and support the dream arena rather than settle for half measures, said Parks and Recreation Director Rick Manchester.

"People will say, ‘where's the money?' But this is exactly the time to plan it, so when (the economy) turns around, we're ready to go."

The discussion hit at the heart of the town's current economic and image building plans. Economic development discussions in the past year have focused heavily on ways to draw more tourists, who can support businesses and also yield a supply of people who wind up moving to Payson or buying second homes.

The town recently launched a tourist-oriented Web site and adopted a slogan as a "mountain town with a western heritage."

The rodeo grounds occupy a vital piece of ground in that effort, town officials said. The existing 3,500-seat bleacher style arena sits between the Mazatzal Casino, with its recently expanded convention-oriented services, and the site of a proposed Hilton convention hotel.

As a result, if the rodeo grounds can become an exhibit hall and events venue it would boost the towns ability to attract mid-sized conventions, festivals and trade shows, Manchester said.

Moreover, bragging rights to the country's oldest, continuously run rodeo play a key role in that tourism and economic development plan. But the participants on Wednesday agreed that the rodeo lost a lot of its character and charm in 1999 when the town moved it from the pine-shaded setting of Rumsey Park to the dusty open area surrounded by junipers across from the casino at the entrance to town.

"When they moved it outside of town, it lost something -- like it wasn't important," said one committee member.

"It's sterile, because we lost the pines when we moved from Rumsey," said another.

The committee members spent several hours twisting the Rubic's Cube of conflicting priorities for the redesign.

Much of the discussion centered on how to make the grounds better for horse-related events, including everything from how cowboys can keep their horses shaded and warm them up before events, to how to set up entry points so spectators don't enter the grounds by walking past pens where the calves for the roping contest are kept without food before the event to prevent them from suffering from bloating.

Cleland noted that if the only goal was to create the world's best rodeo grounds with the existing 3,500 seats, the design task would be relatively simple.

The difficulty lies in creating the best possible rodeo ground, which also offer an adequate area for monster truck rallies, country-western concerts, gem and mineral shows, quilters fairs, outdoor recreation expos, dog shows and any number of trade shows.

Drawing expos and festivals that need display areas, arenas and vendor areas remains the key to drawing business into town during the week, said Cleland.

Already, area hotels usually fill up on summer and spring weekends, but rarely during the week. The chief economic goal for the redesign of the rodeo grounds remains finding ways to draw groups of visitors to Payson during off-peak times, Cleland said.

And that poses a severe design challenge, since participants said that when the rodeo is operating, it consumes "110 percent" of the available area. That means that the design has to account for layers of use for the same piece of ground -- one use during rodeos and a completely different use for a trade show.

"We're trying to put 15 pounds into a 10 pound bag," explained Cleland.

Ultimately, the committee members seemed to agree that the master plan had to find a way to accommodate those potentially conflicting uses.

Most participants supported the idea of two arenas, both covered and one probably fully enclosed so it could be heated in the winter. Moreover, most supported improved, hard-wired areas for vendors. Most also supported a park-like design that would welcome residents when there are no events in progress. Drop-in uses open to any resident would include improving the current horse exercise areas, access to the town-wide trail system and areas for picnics and exercising both two-leggeds and four-leggeds, including barkers.

So choice by choice, the committee shifted from quick fixes to the high-end options.

"If we don't include everything we want now," said Manchester, capturing the sense of the group, "we'll never build it. There's no point in building this now to fail later."

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