The promised land glimmers -- way off down the road ahead.
The vision of the Event Center that would give Payson tourism a big shot of horse steroids includes a world-class, covered horse arena, residents exercising their horses and trotting off on a comprehensive trail system, blue grass concerts, trade shows, highway bridges, RV parking, picnicking residents and rows of vendors giving their cash registers a workout.
If all goes as planned, this multi-million dollar juggling act would rise from the mist in dovetailed phases, each step financed by the money generated by the one before, according to a consultant's still forming master plan.
The consultant on Wednesday, May 21 at 5:15 p.m. in the the council chambers, will un-veil the plan taking shape after months of conversations with the major would-be users of a revamped rodeo grounds that could ultimately cost millions -- broken into bit-sized bits.
The public hearing on the is intended mostly to gather ideas from residents who might use the facility if it included drop-in exercise areas for horses, an arena for people practicing their barrel racing skills, families looking for a cool place to picnic, riders wanting to connect to the town's comprehensive trail system or even quad lovers looking for a place to indulge their internal combustion needs.
"We want to make sure we hear the quieter voices from the occasional users and the Payson citizens," said consultant Dan Cleland of the purpose of the Wednesday meeting, a key point in the one-year, $85,000 development of a plan to transform the rodeo grounds. "We want to make sure that the person who isn't intimately involved with the big venues still see this as a comfortable place to get in, park, get to a trail head or use the arena."
Payson Parks and Recreation Director Rick Manchester said the plan taking shape would include three arenas, a strong connection to the Tonto Apache casino and a proposed convention hotel, a covered, climate-controlled arena that could host horse events, trade shows and rodeos year round -- and drop-in facilities for residents.
Ideas needed from all potential users
"We're trying to massage all the needs of our current facility users -- and future users," said Manchester.
The ambitious redesign of the rodeo grounds comes at a challenging moment for the town, with building permit and sales tax revenue plunging and the once-secured adjacent convention center hotel on hold after its financing fell through.
Planners say this economic lull could provide the perfect pause to plan the town's long-time dream of a facility that would make Payson the premier location for horse-oriented events and also draw a year-round parade of trade shows, festivals and other tourist-luring events.
"If you think of the big picture," said Cleland, who has designed many other projects including the Scottsdale Civic Plaza, "it may take 10 or 15 years to bring it all together, but you need to start out by putting the arena in the right location."
Currently, the rodeo arena sits off-center on a 36-acre piece of town-owned land at the south edge of town, across from the Tonto Apache casino. It occupies a strategic piece of ground economically. On one side, sits 150 acres of land the Forest Service has identified for eventual sale or trade, which could provide parking, RV facilities, camping or other uses. Just across the highway sits the casino with its convention facilities.
In one corner sits the land the town has leased to a proposed convention hotel, whose developers recently asked for an extra year to line up financing. Just to the north lies Green Valley Park and Main Street, which town planners hope to connect directly to the event center with road and trail extensions.
"The Event Center is the hub and pivotal point for a lot of the surrounding land uses," said Cleland.
‘Stakeholders' provide needs
Cleland has already spent two months talking to the key "stakeholders," the people at the hotels, the town's economic development department, the casino and rodeo backers. On Wednesday, he's hoping residents will show up to scribble their concerns on the wish list he's developing.
"One thing that's impressed me is the wealth of knowledge available in this community," said Cleland. "It's always interesting to separate the input from the stakeholders and the casual users."
The site designers face a host of challenges in trying to overlap competing uses. One key point has been how to connect the site to the casino. Ideas range from a tunnel under the highway to horse-drawn shuttle wagons. Moreover, the designers have to figure out how to arrange things so that people can easily drop in and use the exercise arena and perhaps unload their horses and go cantering off down the trail even when the main arena is being used by the rodeo or a trade show.
So far, the planning has been in the "Christmas wish list phase," said Manchester, as the town and the consultant gather the long list of proposed uses.
"Right now we're talking about a full-blown, indoor event center -- worthy of PBR (Professional Bullriders Association), with full, indoor, climate-controlled accommodations -- and a second arena that might be covered" and a third arena to exercise horses.
"There are a good number of people who would like to have the ground dedicated just to rodeo, but they know financially that is not reasonable."
Current plan could cost less
He said a previous master plan for the rodeo grounds put the cost of an enclosed, year-round facility with all the add-ons at $12 million, but the current plan should cost less. The previous plan envisioned using the whole 36-acre parcel, but a chunk of that has now been dedicated to the convention hotel. So the current plan focuses on about 20 acres with a considerably lower price tag.
Once the town and the consultant settle on the ideal mix of uses, they'll work on an economic study that will predict what kinds of revenues, sales tax and bed tax receipts the proposed center might generate. And that calculation, in turn, will enable planners to guess at what kind of money might flow into town to underwrite the progression through the various phases.
Once the money estimates have been completed, Cleland will design the full master plan, which should end up before the town council in October or November, estimated Cleland.