Ronald Reagan loved to tell the story about the optimistic fellow who broke into a wide grin upon opening the door to discover a small room filled nearly to the ceiling with horse droppings.
“Why on earth are you smiling?” asked a friend.
“Must be a pony in there somewhere,” our hero answered.
That’s probably something Payson’s newly minted Parks, Recreation and Tourism Director Cameron Davis would say. Davis accepted charge of a new department — comprised of the merger of the Payson Parks and Recreation and the Tourism and Economic Vitality departments in the wake of layoffs and budget cuts — and already predicts great things for the cash-strapped department.
The bustling parks and recreation department in December received a budget body blow, with a nearly 37 percent reduction — including the layoff of then-director Rick Manchester and more than 120 seasonal and part-time workers in response to declining sales tax revenues and a projected year-end deficit. The parks department also lost its entire budget for developing the Payson Area Trails System, touted as a major amenity for both residents and visitors.
Ironically, the parks department took the hardest hit although it was one of the few town departments doing more business in the face of a drop in crime, an economic downturn that all but idled the building and planning department, and the cancellation of almost all capital improvements.
By contrast, the use of parks programs had been increasing rapidly — with fee-paying participants up 70 percent in two years.
About 3,400 sign up for parks programs annually, with another 24,000 admissions to Taylor Pool.
Davis has vowed to keep almost all of those programs running, despite the loss of nearly all the part-time staff that used to run them.
Davis hopes to call on volunteer labor, private donations and some scrambling by the remaining paid staff to maintain as many of those programs as possible.
Friends of Payson Parks and Recreation has already donated more than $5,000 to keep the February programs afloat and hopes to raise $50,000 in private donations to support recreation programs this summer.
In the meantime, Davis predicted the merger of tourism and recreation will help Payson reclaim its relinquished title as the festival capital of Arizona. As director of Tourism and Economic Vitality, Davis had pushed for a sharp increase in the number of summer festivals likely to lure visitors from the swelter of the Valley of Way Too Much Sun.
Now charged with the recreation department as well, he hopes to coordinate events and activities and to foster an increase in the number of tourist-friendly special events and festivals.
Already this summer the town will add to its normal slate of events a Civil War re-enactment and the return of the Sawdust Festival.
“The biggest synergy” in combining the departments, said Davis, “will be putting special events together with promotions, which allows us to work very closely together. As far as parks programs are concerned, there will be no change.”
Parks employees have been scrambling to provide coverage for programs that used to rely on the part-time staff — and have so far avoided the cancellation of any major programs.
Davis has no background in running parks programs, but has proven adept at enlisting political support from the council and other departments for his efforts to promote tourism.
Davis headed up the effort to develop a Web site for visitors and has pushed for the development of additional special events during the tourist season. Anticipated events include the return of the once popular, but now long suspended, “Sawdust Festival,” which once celebrated Rim Country’s logging traditions. The revived event will offer music, food and a family-oriented atmosphere.
Davis said he hopes to develop some major tourist draw that will also provide entertainment for locals virtually every weekend through the summer.
However, he’ll have to figure out how to make most such events pay for themselves and generate free publicity, given the town’s dire financial condition.
The town’s efforts to build up tourism took an additional hit last summer when the financial slump shelved efforts to develop a master plan for the Payson Event Center at the rodeo grounds. The town had hired a consultant to develop a plan to provide a covered stadium and concessions that would work with the casino and second convention hotel to lure trade shows and special events to town all summer long.
However, the recession sank the proposed convention hotel and the slump in town revenues prompted Payson to cancel the contract with the consultant developing the master plan.
Davis said the merged department will ensure close coordination between those special events and existing recreation programs.
“I’m very excited about being able to work with (the recreation staff). We’ll function as a team on a variety of things. In the meantime, we’ll look for ways to keep all the recreation programs going — looking for volunteers and sponsors,” Davis said.