Event Center Plan Extends 10-20 Years

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At first glance, the consultant's latest plan to transform the Event Center grounds looked suspiciously like the last five master plans -- including the $12-million layout for an enclosed arena shelved eight years ago for lack of money.

But this time, a financial analysis will break the master plan into phases Payson can actually chew and swallow, said designer Dan Cleland on Wednesday.

Cleland gave four councilors, a dozen members of a citizen's committee and a few members of the public their first detailed glimpse of the latest plan for the Event Center. The master plan included a covered, air-conditioned main arena that could be converted to a 7,500-seat concert venue, a warm up arena, small practice arenas that could host drop-in riders, stables, corrals, road connections to Main Street and Green Valley Park, permanent restrooms, space for vendors, connections to a proposed convention hotel and a bridge over the highway to link the site to the Tonto Apache casino complex.

The community leaders assembled at Town Hall for their glimpse of Payson's own version of Tomorrowland.

Think bite-sized pieces, said Cleland, noting that the next step will be to conduct a financial analysis that will reveal how to break the project into phases that may stretch out for the next 10 to 20 years. The key is to figure out what events, festivals and activities the center must accommodate to generate the money to finance the rodeo arena of everyone's dreams.

"We may have five phases over 15 years," said Cleland, noting that the key to the design now was to make sure nothing built in the first phase would have to be rebuilt in the fifth phase.

"It's not only a pivot point financially, it's a hub" for all the surrounding areas, including the existing casino, a proposed convention hotel, a 150-acre Forest Service swath of potentially tradable land and a chunk of land to the south recently acquired by the Tonto Apache Tribe.

"I don't want my plan to end up back in the closet with the other five," so he's counting on the financial plan to generate the money to finance the later phases.

But already, he's grappling with the problem posed by trying to fit a concert venue into the same space as a nationally ranked bull rider arena -- with lots of space to also accommodate a monster truck rally, a blue grass festival and a gun and knife trade show.

"We've got to get 15 pounds of potatoes into a 10-pound bag," he explained. "It was almost overwhelming, because we had so much interest from the community. It's the difference between designing a regular chess game and designing one of those three-tier chess games," said Cleland, who has designed public spaces statewide including the Scottsdale Civic Center Plaza which also hosts an array of art shows and special events.

However, the public interest in the event center didn't translate into much of a turnout for the widely advertised unveiling of the plan.

Parks and Recreation Director Rick Manchester made note of the lack of drop-in members of the general public. "Either the public thinks it's not going to happen, or they're satisfied with how it's going -- hopefully it's the latter," he observed.

But he agreed that the key question is not so much what should go into the master plan as how and when the town can afford to build the facilities everyone wants. "It's not so much what we're going to build, it's when we're going to build it and how we're going to phase it in."

Ironically enough, one of the key design problems Cleland focused on was the very thing the rodeo grounds lost when the town decided to move it out of centrally located Rumsey Park and into the expansive, strategically located but dustily empty chunk of land amidst the scrubby pinyon at the east end of town.

"We need to be sure that it has a sense of place," said Cleland of the ultimate design, since it not only makes the first impression on arriving visitors, but must carry the weight of being the site of the world's oldest, continually run rodeo.

The Rumsey Park arena was an historic structure built of logs, surrounded by tall pine trees. After the town moved the arena to its present location in hopes of unclogging the downtown during rodeo events and connecting to both the casino and a hoped-for convention hotel, fire crews torched the old structure. In the process, they accidentally burned down some of the trees that once shaded spectators and vendors.

Rodeo attendance has declined gradually since the move and the town has also lost many of the festivals that once drew people all summer long, partly because the new rodeo ground lacks the grass, shade and ambiance that distinguished the Rumsey Park location.

So now part of the challenge is simply recapturing the small town, western feel of the old site while still creating a year-round, flexible facility that can draw an array of events and boost the marketing potential for the two biggest hotels in town -- the casino and the proposed Hilton convention hotel.

Unfortunately, the lease of town-owned land next to the Event Center grounds to that proposed convention hotel has hit a snag in the form of the national credit meltdown that recently forced the hotel developer to ask for another year to line up new financing.

Fortunately, Cleland said everyone directly affected by the redesign of the Event Center agreed on the need for a covered, climate controlled arena, other smaller support arenas and a site that could accommodate concerts, festivals and trade shows.

They also agreed on the need to get shade on the spectators in the main arena in as early a phase of the master plan as possible.

Cleland said the current consensus-building phase was vital in making sure the ultimate design didn't make compromises that would interfere with the primary goal -- building one of the nation's best facilities for horse-related events, whether it was a stop on the professional bull riders' association circuit with the kinds of crowds and prizes that could draw the nation's top professional cowboys or a competition for high school ropers.

That meant making sure horses didn't have to walk across pavement or dodge cars to get to the arena, participants had shady places to tie up their horses and horses and livestock could get around without intersecting with crowds of strolling spectators.

For instance, Cleland noted the difference between professional cowboys and high school contestants. "Teenagers are an extension of their horses and if they're going to get a hot dog, they'll be on their horse and riding in a group."

One more point to consider in deciding on where to put the hot dog stands.

The meeting drew four council members -- Mayor Bob Edwards, Su Connell Andy Romance and Ed Blair -- plus councilman-elect Richard Croy.

In his last full week in office, Edwards who pushed for the citizen's committee that has overseen the development of the master plan, continued to ask tough questions and generate creative ideas.

For instance, he wondered aloud whether the facility could include a portable ice rink, to draw business to town during winter months in the years before the town could afford to enclose the arena and put in year-round climate control.

Great idea, said Cleland.

And maybe one more pound of potatoes for his 10-pound bag.

The town will continue to gather public comment as it works up an event center wish list for another few weeks.

Then Cleland will move into phase two of the design work, preparing a financial and marketing plan to determine what sorts of events the center ought to host and how much money in fees and taxes such events would likely generate.

That analysis will then determine how much income the center could produce and how quickly the town could move through the various phases.

In the meantime, Cleland said it already looks like the town will need more land to realize the full potential of the center -- mostly for parking. The only obvious source of additional land is the adjacent Forest Service land.

"My biggest concern with the design is the parking," said Cleland. "When you start talking about a covered facility that can seat 7,500 people at a concert, we're going to be maxed out with the parking."

But he remains enthusiastic about the speed with which everyone agreed on the ultimate goal of the redesign.

"We're excited about this. I really like how the ideas are coming together," Cleland concluded.

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