Payson has a long, rich history and a distinctive character — but economically it’s still a gangly teenager, wondering whether to go to college and what the heck to major in.
But in the next year, this town will come of age, which means making some tough decisions.
The town last week launched a year-long series of hearings and reports needed to overhaul the general plan blueprint of its future. That plan will determine whether to overhaul the zoning, embrace higher densities, change the traffic circulation patterns, build taller buildings, lure more industry and diversify the economy.
The effort comes at the perfect moment, with the planning department still idled but facing sweeping changes as Payson teeters on the brink.
The town — and its residents — must now face their future.
The current plan envisions a slow, haphazard doubling, then tripling in size — all the while remaining a tourist town reliant on the stability of a growing retirement and second-home contingent.
Back before the Great Recession, that seemed like a reasonable plan as builders scrambled to add 300 homes annually to the housing stock. Granted, the pressure of speculators and second-home buyers drove the price of those new homes beyond the reach of the average Payson worker. But workers could always find something in Mesa del or Star Valley or the handful of affordable neighborhoods.
The political problem seemed more centered on water and the pace of growth, resulting in a heady period of real estate inflation and growth controls.
The crash changed all that. Suddenly, residents found their net worth melting away. The number of displaced kids and low-income families in the school district soared. The food bank shelves emptied out. School enrollment shrank.
The crash administered a nasty shock — just in time.
Here’s what we’ve learned from the last four years: We must seize the future, not wait passively for it to pull in off the highway on the way to somewhere else.
Fortunately, due to decades of visionary effort by community leaders, a gush of Blue Ridge water — the foundation for our future — will arrive in 2014. As the climate shifts and the droughts lengthen, Payson will become one of the few communities in this state with an assured water future. This simple fact makes everything else possible.
The brave, creative, albeit frustrating, effort to lay a year-round economic foundation by building a university campus here provides another crucial building block. The determined effort to attract complementary, year-round businesses that key off that educational complex provides another. We still believe in that vision.
Beyond that, we must have a blueprint for the future that includes a healthy, growing tourism sector. The convention hotel that comes with the university will provide a crucial piece of that puzzle. The neglected effort to build a comprehensive hiking and biking trail system provides another. The long, frustrating effort to upgrade the Payson Event Center to attract trade shows provides another link in the chain.
We hope that the town will also consider creating exciting amenities like a year-round stream through town as part of the ongoing effort to restore our water table with the Blue Ridge water. We believe that as the lack of water once defined Payson, now our abundance of water can distinguish us from places like Flagstaff and Prescott in the critical competition for tourist dollars. We can build a family-friendly identity that capitalizes on the proximity of Tonto Creek, the Verde River, the Rim lakes and hundreds of miles of trails.
All of this will certainly have an impact on current residents — many of them drawn to the peaceful, small-town virtues of this marvelous community. Prescott Valley certainly offers a cautionary tale for anyone who thinks that reflexive, runaway growth will make Payson a better place to live. We must protect the essential nature of this warm-hearted, deep-rooted community — while still accommodating growth and diversifying the economy. We cannot retreat to our forested castles, while our children drift off in search of an education and a job and our working families line up for canned goods at the food bank.
So we hope that you will enter into this crucial effort to chart the future of Payson.
First, go to the town’s Web site (www.paysonaz.gov) and fill out the community survey by clicking on the box at the top of the purple directory under “town news” on the right hand side of the page. Then make plans to attend the Tuesday, Dec. 11 public meeting at 6 p.m., in Messinger Funeral Home community meeting room.
It’s time for Payson to pick a college, settle on a major — and get on with deciding what we want to be when we grow up.