Uncertain Dawn Of A New Year

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Whew. Where did 2010 go? Seems like we just started 2010 and yet the calendar says it is over and 2011 is right on top of us. For the most part, 2010 seemed like a long, fitful sleet storm, with the odd break in the clouds.

The overcast never quite broke and the road forward remained slick and treacherous — but every so often a brilliant lance of light gleamed through the storm.

Certainly, 2010 was not the best of years — despite a few bright spots. The recession has ended, but not the high unemployment, mudslide of poor decisions at the state and national level or the endlessly inconclusive war in Afghanistan.

Still, the storms of 2010 left us with hopes for a break in the dour weather in 2011.

Nationally, a handful of key economic trends offer hope for an improved economy.

Christmas spending was strong, corporate profits were encouraging, the stock market held its own, average wages improved, inflation remained minimal and the housing market showed signs of improvement — after taking a hit when the big tax credit for first-time buyers expired.

Granted, the stubbornly high unemployment rate remains a drag on the recovery. However, among college graduates the rate remains about 5 percent — a figure that underscores the need to maintain strong community colleges and universities.

In Rim Country, we caught a glimpse of an elusive rainbow. The prospects for a Payson campus operated by ASU made tantalizing gains — with the signing of a memorandum of understanding and the dedicated efforts of advocates from the town and from ASU.

Clearly, daunting obstacles remain — mostly the possibility the Legislature will gut the universities in a desperate effort to balance the budget and the glacial speed of the Forest Service in selling Payson the 300 acres needed for the campus.

Can the town of Payson get the Forest Service land in a timely manner? Can the town negotiate the legal complexities of forming a community facilities district? Will ASU keep focused on this bright prospect, despite its budget woes? Will the Legislature avoid doing something cosmically foolish?

The new year also brings hope mingled with doubt about the crucial effort to attain independence and fair treatment for Gila Community College. The crusade took a big step in 2010 when Sen. Sylvia Allen took up the cause, won re-election and earned a top leadership spot in the senate. In the interim, we also took heart from the possibility that a newly independent GCC might work with ASU or Northland Pioneer College to continue its strong growth in enrollment and expansion in programs during the three or four years it would take to win accreditation on its own.

The business community continues to hang on through all the disappointments and delays. Many still hope that ASU and Payson will strike a deal and transform the business climate. The prospect offers a host of magical possibilities — more business, high-end jobs, a resort hotel, a solar cell manufacturing plant — maybe this or that.

Alas, no one has signed on the dotted line, so two years into the downturn, local businesses must still subsist on hope and rumors — and the willingness of residents to buy local and keep their neighbors solvent.

Along the way, we gained and lost some businesses. It is nice to have a furniture store in town again among others. Overall, we appear to have gained more than we lost in 2010, which is a good sign. But we continue to suffer from a crippling unemployment rate and a rising poverty rate — reflected in the tragic surge in the number of people seeking help from neighborhood food banks and groups like Payson Helping Payson and St. Vincent de Paul.

Perhaps the most urgent challenge of the new year will confront the Payson Unified School Board, grappling with an $800,000 deficit and the possibility that the Legislature will take a meat cleaver to K-12 funding in January. The school board will soon consider a recommendation to not only close Frontier Elementary School, but approve a dispiriting increase in class sizes at the surviving elementary schools.

Yet despite all that, we feel heartened by a certain lightening in the clouds — never mind the weather outside at the moment.

As Charles Austin Beard observed: When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.

We also like the wisdom of the proverb: It is always darkest before the dawn.

Hopefully, those quotes fit the uncertain dawn of 2011 better than the alternative: “It is always darkest before it gets completely black.”

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