‘Friends’ Ramps Up Effort To Help Parks Programs

Major donors have already provided $10,000 of the $47,000 needed to save recreation programs this year

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Realtors and an anonymous major donor have so far provided about one-fifth of the money it will take to help Payson’s hard-pressed recreation programs make it through until next January.

“I’m optimistic, very optimistic. We’re getting a good response,” said Bill Ensign, who heads Friends of Payson Parks and Recreation.

The group has raised just over $10,000, with several thousand dollars in additional pledges, but needs $47,000. That money would make up for cuts in the Parks and Recreation department’s budget, imposed as a result of lagging revenue projections in December.

At that time, Town Manager Debra Galbraith laid off the department’s director and all the part-time and seasonal workers — about 120 people in all. Parks suffered the biggest hit of any town department, and town officials feared they would have to devastate a host of recreation programs and sports leagues.

Friends of Parks worked with the town to come up with fund-raising targets that would protect all the major programs, with target dates for the amount needed. Out of the $47,000, about $8,600 would go to youth sports, $13,066 to adult sports, $12,682 to outdoor recreation and $2,550 to the pool.

Ensign said even before the group launched its formal fund-raising drive, generous donors stepped forward.

One Payson resident donated $5,000 — half the total raised so far. However, he didn’t want any public credit for the gift.

In addition, ERA Realty donated $1,000 and the Central Arizona Board of Realtors donated another $2,500.

“I was just absolutely blown away,” said Ensign of the big, initial gifts. “It’s a wonderful example for them to set as we start talking to some other folks.”

Ensign said the fund-raising goal was intended to get the recreation programs through the next year, on the assumption that the recession will ease and tax revenues will rise by this time next year.

He said town officials had assured Friends the town would foot the bill for keeping the pool open next summer.

The pool remains the parks department’s most expensive program, but it also gets the heaviest use.

The pool gets about 20,000 admissions annually and costs about $120,000 more than it brings in.

All the rest of the paid parks programs combined get more than 6,000 participants — which still amounts to about a third of the town’s population. Those classes, leagues and events come much closer to breaking even than the pool — especially the youth programs. However, most have lost the part-time paid staff that once administered the programs, refereed the games, coached the teams and taught the classes.

The town has put out its own appeal for anyone willing to volunteer time to help run the sports leagues and classes.

Meanwhile, Friends this week released a detailed summary of the cost of the programs it hopes to save with enough community support.

That breakdown included:

• Part-time workers — It will cost $30,000 to hire enough part-time workers to run all the scheduled programs for the next five months. It will take an extra $23,000 to get through until June of 2010.

• Trails system — Friends has already donated $5,826 to continue work on the Payson Area Trails System, a 50-mile-long network of hiking and riding trails that connects every area in town to a huge network of Forest Service trails. The town hopes the roughly half-finished trails system will provide safe, easy recreation for residents — and serve as a major draw for visitors. Volunteers have done much of the work so far, but the town council cut the money for staff support and supplies for the rest of the current fiscal year.

• Event Center — The town council also cut funding to pay for part-time people who have worked to promote and stage events at the Payson Event Center. Friends hopes to raise money to support programs at the rodeo grounds.

• Events — The town has announced an ambitious schedule that includes perhaps 100 special weekend events in the next 12 months, including the re-enactment of a Civil War battle, the revival of the logger-oriented Sawdust Festival, new events connected to the Payson Rodeo and many other events and festivals. Such events can bring thousands of visitors to town, but often require money for facilities and to support volunteers. Friends hopes to raise money to help offset some of those costs.

Ensign said the campaign to raise money will rely mostly on e-mails and word of mouth, since there’s no budget for mailers or ads or phone banks.

“I’ve sent out an e-mail to everyone I can think of, and the other board members are doing the same,” said Ensign. “So we’re starting to get a response from that.”

The eight board members have all promised to button hole their networks of friends and supporters in the town. Members of the board include two town council members — John Wilson and Su Connell — in addition to school board member and realtor Rory Huff. Other board members include Sharon Strople, Jim Buettner, Earl Davis and Alan Michels.

To make a tax-deductible contribution, send a check to Friends of Payson Parks and Recreation, 1000 N. Beeline Highway #143, Payson, AZ 85541.

For information or to help with the fund-raising drive, contact Ensign at the same address.

Ensign said he hopes other businesses will follow the lead of the Realtors who have already contributed — despite the terrible year they’ve been having as a result of the slump in housing.

“It’s interesting we’re so quick to criticize the real estate industry, but they’re the ones who are coming forward. We need help and they’re willing to stand up and help — and I’m sure there are lots of other people out there willing to do the same.”

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