Payson has had a “good year” and has “turned the corner” Economic Development Coordinator Mike Vogel assured the town council on Thursday.
A surge in building permits for houses and apartments coupled with half a dozen small manufacturing plants in the pipeline has seemingly ended the building drought that has blighted the Rim Country’s economy for the past two years.
During the boom years, builders added an average of more than 200 homes to Payson each year.
But building almost dried up entirely once the recession hit in 2009.
“We’re still not where we were, but compared to last year — it’s phenomenal,” said Vogel, a former council member who took on a part-time job recruiting new businesses and helping them navigate the town’s planning bureaucracy.
Vogel said builders have taken out permits to add or remodel 100 apartment units in town, compared to zero last year and the year before. That includes a complex on Clark Street that will remodel 30 existing units and add 30 new units and a new 36-unit development on Bonita Street.
In addition, owners have pulled permits to remodel four existing units.
Vogel said the town approved 28 single-family homes last year. This year the town had already issued 22 permits half way through the year.
Moreover, the town this year is processing permits for four commercial buildings compared to zero last year.
Vogel said last year the town officials fielded four or five inquiries from manufacturing and major commercial firms looking for a place to build.
This year, he said he’s been dealing with three or four new inquiries each week.
If Vogel is correct, the turnaround could come just in time for many struggling businesses. Census figures suggest that the area’s population has dropped significantly in the past three years.
Moreover, the number of houses for sale and empty storefronts remains high — just like the persistently high unemployment rate.
Nonetheless, Vogel said he’s seeing signs of the turnaround local businesses have been praying for during two record-breaking bad years.
Vogel credited the town’s efforts to clear away roadblocks to new development and a willingness to actively recruit new businesses — with a focus on small manufacturing firms that could provide 10 or 15 jobs each.
The town now offers to help businesses move through the approvals process with a promise that Vogel, Town Manager Debra Galbraith or Payson Mayor Kenny Evans will help keep projects moving by attending meetings between builders and town officials.
Vogel also offers a “walk through” of the process, setting up informal meetings between business owners and developers and the officials who will ultimately process their plans to ensure business owners understand the process.
That policy has changed the perception of Payson among developers, said Vogel.
“Our goals have been exceeded,” he said. “I really did expect it to take more than a year to change attitudes about Payson. But the idea that you can sit back and hope that someone will call isn’t going to happen.”
Councilor Ed Blair praised the effort to streamline approvals and provide a “walk through” of the approval process for business owners.
“I’m very impressed with the idea of the walk-through. You’ve done a great job. You’ve saved a lot of people a lot of grief.”
The report and the council’s reaction underscored the dramatic turn in town politics since the recession took hold in 2008. At that time, Payson had the toughest growth control regulations in the state and routinely processed permits for more than 200 homes annually. Bitter debates about whether the rush of growth would destroy the treasured small-town atmosphere dominated council meetings and elections.
But the sea change that took place after Payson Mayor Kenny Evans defeated then-mayor Bob Edwards has largely transformed the terms of the debate. Councilor Blair once reliably supported Edwards’ policies and the growth restrictions.
He still casts the most frequent dissenting votes, bolstered recently by former Town Manager Fred Carpenter, who defeated Vogel in the last election. However, both Blair and Carpenter have consistently supported measures to encourage new businesses and streamline the planning process.
Vogel said efforts to recruit new businesses and help existing businesses expand has begun to pay off.
He conceded that the town has still faced challenges in recruiting new retail outlets, a problem that directly impacts the town’s sales-tax-dependent budget.
Since sales taxes account for most of the town’s revenue, retail sales pay most of the costs of police and fire protection. Vogel said in the past six months, 49 retail companies have either come to town or shifted locations.
He said town officials are also in discussions with four or five small manufacturing firms, which would each add about 15 jobs to the town’s economy.
“I really do think we’ve turned the corner,” Vogel concluded.