More signs. Less paperwork.
More information and how about a college campus?
That’s the gist of the input town officials received from nearly 200 Rim Country business people Friday morning during an open-ended forum intended to showcase the town’s economic development interest and a more business-friendly approach.
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans, Vice Mayor Mike Vogel and Town Manager Debra Galbraith said they need more input from local businesses and are working hard to bring new businesses to town.
“But we’ve got to get a lot better at farming in our back yard,” said Evans, by helping existing businesses in addition to luring newcomers.
Vogel said he hopes to continue working as a town ombudsman and a connecting link between businesses and the town staff, even after he leaves the council next month.
“Before you talk to anybody, call me and
one of us,” he said, with a gesture that took in Evans and Galbraith, “will personally escort you through every meeting you have” with town staff.
He said the council and town staff are determined to reverse Payson’s reputation as hard on business and big on regulations.
“It’s an attitude adjustment,” said Vogel. “I’ve apologized (to businesses) more in the last 18 months than I’ve ever apologized in my life. But if you call me, we’ll sit down and talk so we can go from there.”
Sharp dissatisfaction with the town’s sign ordinance and concerns about the fragmentation of the business community provoked the most complaints.
But news that a proposed college campus has lined up pledges of $500 million from investors and donors drew the biggest reaction — a loud round of applause.
Evans said the more than five-fold increase in commitments from people who control billions in assets for the first time makes such a campus “highly probable.”
“Call it fate, the alignment of the stars, but I give credit to the good folks of Payson and the good Lord,” said Evans.
On a more contentious note, the appeal for suggestions and a new relationship drew a range of reactions from the mostly small-business owners crowded into Tiny’s Restaurant, which turned over the huge, double dining room to the 7:30 a.m. event.
Realtor Cliff Potts said many clients who come to town looking for business properties still leave town hall discouraged by a list of regulations that seems much tougher than the standards displayed by existing businesses.
“The feedback we get is ‘we can’t play by the rules the town has when other people don’t play by the rules.’ We lose a lot prospects that way.”
Abby Kaplin got a round of applause when she criticized the restrictive sign ordinance and codes that restrict what shop owners can put out in front to lure shoppers off the highway.
“People want to see stuff. People want to see clutter. Until we put enough stuff out front, they’re not going to stop. We have a natural traffic flow in this town” because of out-of-town visitors passing through on the highway.
“We need to take advantage of that flow.”
Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce Manager John Stanton said he gets lots of complaints about the town’s tough sign ordinance, including a provision that allows temporary signs out front every day except Tuesday. He said many people complain, “what the heck’s with this signage routine? Why can’t we put it out all week?”
Vogel replied that the sign ordinance represents a compromise between the business owners who want as many big signs as possible and residents who don’t want a chaotic, cluttered street front.
“We have 200 people calling saying ‘why can’t we keep signs out every day.’ But we’ve also got 6,000 people who don’t want (a lot of signs.) That’s tough — but if you’ve made both sides unhappy, then you’ve probably got a good deal.”
He then added, “But we’ve heard you and we’re working on it — you just have to realize that government works 10 times slower than you do.”
Jerry Galano, who operates a gym on Main Street, said it took him nearly three months to get town approval of a sign he designed and wanted to install on his building.
“Your answer — that’s the way government operates — that’s just unacceptable. When it takes two and a half months to hang a simple sign, that’s just unacceptable.”
However, another Main Street business owner rose to say she hired a local sign company to produce a sign and that sign company got permits, built and installed the sign in a matter of days.
“If you pay someone, then it goes smoothly,” said Galano, who went through his sign ordeal two years ago. “But if I wanted to do it myself and put in four simple bolts, I got a rash of trash.”
Vogel said that’s the whole point of a plan to appoint a town ombudsman, charged with helping businesses and residents cope with the system. The goal is to make sure no one else ever has to go through the kind of hassle the owner of the Swiss Village Shopping Center endured in a nearly four-year effort to get permission to put up a sign listing.
One business owner objected to the idea that residents don’t want to have to look at the signs vital to the survival of local businesses.
“Our sales tax gives you your salaries,” she said. “I would like to know what people don’t want” businesses to have signs.
“How much do you suppose you pay me?” asked Evans, nettled — perhaps because he routinely spends several times his council salary on town-related expenses.
“I pay $3,000 to $4,000 on sales taxes every month,” she said.
Evans said local sales taxes provide about 20 percent of the town’s revenue. “We listen to all the constituencies in town.”
“But who are these people” who object to business signs, the business owner persisted.
Vogel said he had attended his last meeting as a council member the night before and had at that meeting voted to repeal the 250-unit-per year limit on new construction. “How many of you remember the anti-growth people?” asked Vogel.
The room groaned collectively.
“Are they gone?” asked someone.
“No, they’re not gone. They’re never going to be gone. They’re like the dentist: they never go away,” which drew a collective laugh.
Several participants decried the fragmented nature of the business community — with contending groups and associations that rarely communicate and often clash.
“We’ve got a lot of different business organizations in town,” said Roger Williams. “They’re fragmented and alienated from each other.”
“I would love to solve all the business problems in the town of Payson,” said Evans. “I would love to solve all the family problems in the town of Payson. But there will always be conflict.”
Evans and Vogel repeatedly urged business owners to ask for help in dealing with the town’s bureaucracy and develop connections with other business owners.
“We’ll fund a formal position, where we’ll have someone who can provide that consistency,” said Evans, a reference to a proposal to pay Vogel a part-time salary to continue running interference for existing businesses and work to recruit new ones. That idea has drawn some complaints, since Vogel narrowly lost his seat in the last election and the town continues to suffer from budget problems.
Evans continued, “(Town Manager) Debra Galbraith has done a marvelous job of bringing the staff to the table. As you get to know Debra and her staff, you’ll find they’re not the staff of a generation ago, they’re not the staff of five years ago.”
“Thank God for that,” interjected one Realtor in the audience.
“We’ve been making cold calls” to new business prospects for 18 months, said Vogel. “When we started, they would say ‘we know about Payson, and hang up the phone.’ Now, they’re starting to call us.”