Rim Country businesses reported a busy weekend as people crowded into town for a host of special events — including a high school rodeo, quilt show, the Strawberry Festival and blues and jazz shows.
“We had a fantastic weekend,” said Payson Tourism and Recreation Director Cameron Davis.
About 1,500 people filled the stands at the rodeo grounds each day on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, to watch 350 of the best teen riders in the country compete in a statewide rodeo competition.
Davis said almost every restaurant in town had waits for dinner on Saturday and, at one point on Saturday afternoon, he counted 42 people in line for food at Subway.
A sprint triathlon contributed its share to the weekend, with 148 participants, counting the teams — 40 more than last year.
Meantime in Strawberry and Pine, about 5,000 people attended the quilt show, Strawberry Festival and Blues Festival, said Elaine Putnam, vendor coordinator for the quilt show.
“We had an outstanding turnout,” said Putnam, “the biggest turnout we’ve ever had,” although she didn’t have the numbers tallied on Monday.
The quilt show, sponsored by the local quilters club, drew 700 quilters and several thousand browsers, with the biggest crowds on Friday. The Strawberry Festival and the return of the Strawberry Blues Festival also proved big draws on Saturday and Sunday.
The Blues Festival included a host of regional blues artists, including Big Pete Pearson, renowned in the Valley for popularizing “shout out” blues. He’s also known for his colorful stories — like the night he was shot on stage in Texas and didn’t even notice until the bass player pointed out the blood. Big Pete took a quick run to the emergency room then came back and finished the set.
Putnam said busloads of people came up from the Valley and even Camp Verde for the festival. At one point, traffic was backed up all the way through town.
Putnam said the event drew about 84 vendors, including a variety of arts and crafts booths and many food booths.
“We talked to some of the local merchants — they were swamped. They had great, great business days,” said Putnam.
However, some local businesses reported that all the special events siphoned away a lot of the normal afternoon business.
Moreover, some of the events found themselves competing for visitors.
The state Chili Cookoff held in the parking lot of the casino did a good business most of the weekend, but trailed off early on Sunday — with the winners for the best chili in the land announced to a small core of true believers.
Davis said he didn’t yet have figures on what percentage of the Payson’s 620 hotel rooms filled up, but said just 10 percent of the crowd at the rodeo alone would represent a near sellout of the town’s hotel rooms.
He said he felt that visitors booked most of the rooms and kept most local merchants busy ringing up sales. He noted that a comprehensive survey of the people who attended a recent FLW bass tournament spent $250,000 in the course of a long weekend. He said he suspected that all the activities in town this past weekend must have had a similar effect.
Davis said traffic on the town’s tourism Web site has increased about 20 percent from last year — to about 600 unique visitors a day.
Rim Country businesses hope the busy summer season will snap the local economy out of a long slow spell.
Sales tax figures from April showed an 11 percent decline in sales tax revenue on accommodations and a 5 percent decline in restaurant and bar sales. Those two categories account for 12 percent of all sales taxes collected. But visitors also contribute significantly to the largest sales tax category — retail sales. In April, retail sales taxes had declined 7 percent over the previous year. Retail sales account for half of all sales taxes.
Davis said the busy weekend bodes well for the big event of the summer — the town’s Fourth of July bash in Green Valley Park.
This year the water department and the Northern Gila County Sanitation District will put up $10,000 to finance the fireworks show, which will include a parade down Main Street, booths and other activities.
“That’s always the biggest day of the summer — last year we had 10,000 visitors,” Davis said. “I think we’ll beat that this year.”