To prosper, Payson needs to get “funky” — with quaint, shopping districts within walking distance of the proposed four-year college and its parks instead of dull strip malls. It needs coffee shops, bike trails and good restaurants.
With such changes, Payson could become a destination city, not a drive-through city, said Grady Gammage Jr., a lawyer, author, real estate developer, ASU professor and former elected official.
Gammage has a long history with Payson. His father, Grady Gammage senior, served as president of ASU for nearly 28 years and effectively purchased Camp Tontozona.
As a child, Gammage spent weekends and summers at the camp at a family cabin. Later, his family purchased several hundred feet of stream front property at Kohl’s Ranch. Today, Gammage and his wife still spend every weekend in the summer at the cabin enjoying the cool mountain air.
“Like most flatlanders, I don’t contribute a lot to the economy, I don’t participate in the community,” he said, explaining that he and his wife go to Safeway for groceries at the start of their weekend and then hide away in their cabin for the rest, only to return to town as they are leaving.
“There is not a whole lot to attract us to come back in,” he said.
Gammage asked business and community leaders at Tuesday’s Business Buzz luncheon, “How do you integrate this transient population?”
Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce Manager John Stanton said one way is to get people like Gammage involved with community organizations like Rotary and Kiwanis, this way they feel connected to the town in other ways beyond shopping.
“If we don’t change the people, we can’t change the rest of it,” Stanton said.
Like most Valley residents, Gammage said he loves the Rim Country and all it has to offer: towering pine trees, mountain views and cool temperatures; however, he isn’t in love with the empty shops and lack of amenities.
Gammage said he has done his best to support local business, buying every western and cabin chotsky he could find, but year after year that he returns, another shop has closed.
“That distinct, local retailer doesn’t survive,” he said, partly because shopping malls are stretched out and Payson lacks a center where people can walk from shop to shop.
“Payson just doesn’t have the pedestrian areas,” he said, because it was built for the automobile.
Nearby Pine, with its bustling main street and pedestrian-friendly atmosphere, is more interesting to visit, he admitted.
However, there are definite ways for the town to improve, he said.
He suggested the local government take an even more active role in streetscaping and redevelopment districts.
“You are on the exact edge of the ponderosa pine forest,” he said. “When you come in there are no pine trees and when you leave there are pine trees. You need to capture this transition. You have a lot to sell; the beauty, climate, all coupled with a community.
“This is a special place. It feels like a magical retreat in the mountains a million miles away from Phoenix,” he said.
The town needs to capitalize on all it has to offer and embrace change.
In terms of a highway bypass enabling most weekend traffic to bypass Payson, Gammage said its creation is inevitable and would benefit both the town and business owners.
While businesses on Highway 87 may suffer initially, the bypass could spur the creation of distinct shopping areas that would entice people to drive in and stop, rather than pass through as they do now.
“Over the long haul, it can be to your advantage,” he said.
Gammage pointed to a study that found baby boomers want different things in retirement than their parents. No longer is golf their No. 1 priority. Instead, amenities, a sense of community, environmentally responsible towns and nearby community colleges top their lists.
Payson has several of these things already established, a community college and Green Valley Park.
“You have a fabulous environment where people want to live,” he said, capitalize on that and improve the livability of town.
In his academic role, Gammage is a senior fellow at ASU’s Morrison Institute.
His work focuses on urban growth and development, quality of life and local economic issues. He also teaches at the College of Law and at the College of Architecture and Environmental Design.
As a lawyer, Gammage represents real estate projects ranging from master planned communities, to sprawling subdivisions, to high rise buildings and intense urban mixed use redevelopment.
He served on the Central Arizona Project Board of Directors for 12 years and as a real estate developer, built an urban mixed-use project in the City of Tempe, which won three architectural awards.
The Northern Gila County Economic Development Corporation and chamber of commerce sponsored the luncheon.