Falling gas prices and rising temperatures have created the perfect recipe for a weekend getaway to the Rim Country. Over the last three months, the number of in-state visitors stopping by the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce is up more than 15 percent over last year, possibly indicating that more people are opting to take “statecations.”
“Statecations,” better known as in-state vacations, have grown in popularity since the economy took a dive in 2008. Strapped for cash, people still wanted to take a trip, said chamber manager John Stanton.
Just a few weeks ago, more than 3,000 out-of-town visitors clamored onto the grass at Rumsey Park to watch the gray and blue battle it out in a Civil War re-enactment.
Stanton said in between the fighting, he met several people from the Valley who said they had never even visited Payson before.
“One couple said they had lived in Chandler for 10 years and they never knew we were up here,” he said. “So, something is drawing them up here because they are coming.”
With more first-time visitors coming up, many are making a point to stop by the visitor center. For the first three months of 2009, drop-in visitors increased 11 percent, with the biggest increase in foreign visitors — up 18 percent.
The chamber hasn’t reported a substantial increase in visitor numbers to its informational center since 2005 when the housing boom brought in close to 20,000 visitors for the year. After the housing market took a dramatic drop in 2006, visitor numbers to the chamber information center dropped nearly 12 percent to 17,000.
“During the big boom, when everyone was buying like crazy, our numbers went up,” Stanton said. “Then they went down, stabilized for a few years and then dropped again.”
Along with the housing market, visitor numbers continued to drop through 2006 and 2007 Stanton says because of several major events.
The first being the Cave Creek Complex fire in June 2005, which threatened the communities of Pine and Strawberry and burned nearly 250,000 acres near Carefree and “scared a lot of people off.”
The second was the water situation. Stanton said the Blue Ridge pipeline was still a distant hope and with ongoing water problems in Pine and Strawberry, visitors were scared to visit a place where they were told to bring their own water.
In 2008, with unemployment rising and salaries dropping, the number of people stopping by the visitor center continued to fall, reaching 12,800 for the year.
However, with 2009 already bringing in higher numbers, Stanton said he is optimistic more visitors will continue to come to the 110 events planned for the year in Payson. Major events include the Sawdust Festival, car show, FLW bass tournament, Mountain High Days Arts and Crafts Bazaar, Zane Grey Day and rodeos, among other events.
“People realize they can come up here now,” Stanton said. “We have a lot of great gems that people don’t know about.”
But with the economy forcing several restaurants and shops to close in town, Stanton worries visitors will not come back soon enough.
“We need to publicize our great restaurants that we do have, because restaurants are a big thing.”
When visitors come up to watch an event, like the Civil War re-enactment, they usually eat and shop for a few hours afterward. If there is nothing to do, they won’t come back, he said.
Parks, Recreation and Tourism Director Cameron Davis’ new Web site, www.paysonrimcountry.com, which showcases upcoming events, is bringing a renewed interest to the town, Stanton said.
The town may also see an increase in retirees soon, after Where to Retire magazine recently selected Payson as a top retirement town for their May/June issue.
“At a higher elevation and amid a forest of ponderosa pines, Payson defies typical Arizona stereotypes, offering mountain scenery and a four-season climate,” said editor Mary Lu Abbott.
“Camping, golfing, hiking cycling, stargazing, snowmobiling, hunting and fishing give residents outdoor fun year-round.”
Payson offers retirees what they are looking for: activities, dining and fun, she said.
Where to Retire was launched 17 years ago to help people find the best place to retire. It is distributed nationally with a circulation of 220,000.