The once-ambitious, now-minimalist plans for a pedestrian-friendly Main Street narrowly avoided a sorrowful burial at Thursday night’s Payson Town Council meeting.
But the two-week postponement may prove more a wake than a reprieve for a $400,000, mostly federally funded effort to turn a 500-foot stretch in the center of the town’s faltering tourist district into a marvel of planters, trees, sidewalks, benches and historic flourishes. The town council agonized for an hour whether to spend $140,000 to $200,000 to secure a $315,000 federal grant administered by the state, before deciding not to decide — yet.
Canceling the project and returning the grant “is really going to hurt us,” said Main Street business owner Minette Richardson. “I’ve worked on Main Street for 20 years and every time we take a step forward, we get pushed back. If we let this go, we’re never going to see it again — this is our chance. We really need it — the town needs it, not just Main Street.”
Redevelopment director Ken Volz also pleaded with the council not to return the grant money, in hopes of getting back in line several years down the road. “That’s the worst course of action you could take,” said Volz.
“Delaying the project is tantamount to this project dying — we’ll lose the $54,000 already invested, the grant — and a $500,000 $500,000 opportunity cost for further grants. I think what we’re talking about here is the council’s commitment to Main Street — which I sense is luke warm.”
The council members who spoke said they supported Main Street, but believed the town simply does not have the money to fund the project in the upcoming budget year, since the Arizona Department of Transportation officials administering the federally funded project had warned the town that it must move forward soon or lose the grant altogether.
“This is one of the hardest things that has happened” in her time on the council, said Councilor Su Connell. “We keep talking about doing something in study after study — but we don’t have any money, so what are we to do?”
After nearly an hour of discussion, the project got a two-week reprieve after Main Street Merchant’s Guild President Rev. Charles Proudfoot asked for time to determine why the town’s share of the project was dramatically higher than most such gas-tax funded grants. The town has already spent $54,000, and Proudfoot said the normal local match should have capped the town’s contribution at no more than $68,000 total.
The project would transform 500 feet of frontage where McLane meets Main Street into a beautifully landscaped, pedestrianfriendly stroll past the storefronts of eight or 10 businesses — which would presumably become a model for the transformation of other sections of the mile-long straggle of historic buildings and scattered shops between the highway and Green Valley Park.
The town four years ago won a coveted street improvement grant and came up with an ambitious, $54,000 master plan for making the mile-long historic street into the tourist-friendly heart of an economic makeover.
Since then, the town has sought four extensions and drastically curtailed the scope of the project, only to have even the scaled-back plan overtaken by the budget crisis.
Now, council members say they can’t figure out any way to come up with the money.
Councilor Richard Croy said the merchants on Main Street should contribute more to revitalizing the street, instead of relying on grants. “A handful have this vision and a lot more are just standing there, waiting to collect when the rainbow comes,” he said.
Councilor Ed Blair argued persistently for more study, better figures, hoping to save the project and keep the grant. “I’d like to see all these figures we’re throwing around on paper. Let’s get it all worked out, even though it might be the same dire conclusion.”
Councilor Michael Hughes said, “If we were in a normal business cycle, I would not have a problem, but we just don’t have the money. All our departments are being cut to the bone.”
Hughes suggested a delay to give Main Street merchants a chance to find a way to come up with private money to pay for the design work, utilities relocation, curbs and paving that wouldn’t be covered by the grant.
Councilor Mike Vogel agreed that the town simply doesn’t have the money to provide the matching funds, especially in light of rumors that the state legislature would drastically cut money going to cities in a desperate effort to balance its own budget. “So if you want this money, you’ve got to pick some employees to lay off — how many firemen? How many officers? That’s the only thing we’ve got left.”
“I’m not insensitive to the budget situation,” replied Volz. But if the town canceled the project now after four years of effort that has dwindled to a 500-foot stretch of street, “then we start to build up this level of disinterest and cynicism. We cannot help but feel disappointed and and frustrated.”
The Rev. Proudfoot ultimately provided the council with a frail reason to at least put off a decision, when he observed that the town’s share should be much less than the roughly 50 percent in the staff estimate.
“We’re spending a lot more (town) money here than we should,” said Proudfoot.
Councilor Blair then moved to table the motion to return the grant for two weeks, hoping Town Engineer LaRon Garrett could rework the grant to reduce the town’s contribution — although that could require going back to ADOT for a revised construction plan.
The motion to postpone a decision passed on a 4-3 vote, with Evans, Vogel and Croy voting against a delay. The rare divided vote represented one of the first times in months an issue has drawn more than a single dissenter in a largely harmonious council.