The Dog And The Bone And The Event Center

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We were groping for a fable to stand for Payson's effort to take full advantage of the world's oldest continuous rodeo -- by just about wrecking it.

So consider the story of the dog with bone, who upon seeing his reflection in the water grows envious of that bigger bone and grabs for it -- dropping the real bone in the water.

And if it's also true that the world's in a grain of sand -- then perhaps the effort to create a premier venue for rodeos and other events offers a metaphor for the whole evolution of Payson -- for better or worse.

More than nearly any other issue of public policy, the reinvention of the rodeo grounds captures the painful choices facing a community that wants to prosper -- without squandering the qualities that make it such a wonderful place to live.

So go back about 10 years, when the world's oldest continuous rodeo was in its prime, conducted in a relatively cramped, historic log arena in Rumsey Park, shaded by tall pine trees.

The structure, the setting, the rollicking informality and cozy size oozed a sense of place -- so that intersection of the cowboys, fiddlers, lemonade vendors and Rotarians perfectly expressed the virtues of a small town in a beautiful place, where you couldn't walk in a straight line for all the howdys. For residents, it was as intimate as a family barbecue -- and for visitors it was a nostalgic taste of a rural lifestyle for which they secretly yearned.

But we figured to improve it.

And on the face of it -- the plan made perfect sense.

Get the rodeo out of its cramped quarters. Take advantage of a big chunk of town-owned land. Free up Rumsey for other activities. Use the rodeo to leverage a host of other events -- and support both the existing casino hotel and a possible convention hotel. Maybe connect it to Main Street, that hoped-for focal point for tourism.

So they moved the rodeo and in a painfully poetic blunder burned down some of the trees that created such a wonderful setting when they torched the historic log structure.

Now rodeo attendance is down, the delightful assortment of festivals and oddball special events has dwindled and the rodeo and its attendant events no longer dominates life in town as it once did.

The town has been master planning the Event Center grounds ever since, twisting the Rubik's cube alignment of events in a frustrated effort to realize the strategic vision behind the move.

A hired gun consultant is now working up the fifth or sixth master plan, since the last go-around produced the gleaming vision of a $12-million covered arena no one could figure out how to finance.

The latest plan looks wonderful even in its nascent state -- clever, innovative and this time connected to a not-yet-completed financial analysis that will break the project into manageable phases spread out over the next 10 to 20 years.

Now if only it felt like the world's oldest continuous rodeo and the amiable, rich-leather, jangly heart of a small town -- the thing that made it so successful for so long.

What can we learn from the ambitious but premature "improvement" of the rodeo grounds?

Maybe, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Or maybe just that Payson must take care to first build on what it has before trying to snatch the reflection of what it might be. When it comes to attracting tourists, rebuilding Main Street, "improving" the rodeo grounds, devising a parks plan, working a Forest Service trade -- the most effective change will always honor the character of the town as it now exists. You can't do that by importing theme park plans from places where you never bump into folks you know when you go out to dinner.

But then, we were heartened to hear the consultant talk about creating "a sense of place" in the redesign of the Event Center grounds. Granted, it's a architect's slogan -- but fortunately, the planners will be hearing from lots of folks who understand perfectly what sort of place generations of hard-working people have created already here in this beloved town.

And perhaps we can have the best of both worlds -- a place that feels like the Payson we love that also satisfies the needs of the financial plan.

Perhaps we dropped the bone in shallow water.

And we can conclude by embracing the immortal wisdom of Yogi Berra: It ain't over 'til it's over.

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