What sort of town do you want to live in?
A fitful, sleepy, second-home, tourist town?
An educational Mecca, keyed to a complex of colleges and universities?
A busy mountain community with a mixed economy and 32,000 residents? How about 48,000? Would you prefer 25,000?
Are you more worried about traffic or jobs?
Parks or dark skies?
Youth activities or a quiet downtown?
Residents will get a chance to answer all those questions as Payson kicks off its once-a-decade revision of the general plan, which lays out the blueprint for future growth.
“The Town of Payson is changing, and we need to anticipate those changes,” said Payson Mayor Kenny Evans, who for the past four years has spearheaded a frustrating, but ambitious effort to convince Arizona State University to build a 6,000-student campus here.
The plan has broadened to include talks with several universities about building campuses on several tracts of land totaling nearly 400 acres on the border between Payson and Star Valley.
That plan could also include a major convention hotel, a solar cell assembly plant, a medical research facility, centers to turn university studies into commercial products and a host of other spin-offs.
The flat economy has driven up poverty rates and homeless rates in the region’s schools, created a struggling block of the long-term unemployed and strained many local businesses.
Backers say the university could interject urgently needed money into the economy while creating year-round activity, freeing the local economy from dependence on the seasonal and volatile tourism industry.
So the move to update the general plan — and with it the town’s zoning codes — comes at a critical moment. The town has already hosted one meeting to solicit ideas from residents. Payson also hopes people will go to its Web site to fill out a questionnaire there — or come by town hall to pick up a copy. The town has established a steering committee to gather information and will hold another public meeting at 6 p.m., Tuesday, Dec. 11 in the Messinger Payson Funeral Home meeting room.
The year-long process will result in a rare chance to consider broad changes in the town’s blueprint for the future.
Currently, the general plan envisions a town that will eventually grow to a population of about 38,000, but will remain basically a low-density, residential community. The current plan offers only minimal light industrial or apartment zoning, with most of the remaining zoning for those uses concentrated on the undeveloped land surrounding the airport.
The town already has major problems with highway traffic congestion during the busy visitor season. So far the town has failed to develop a connected network of major secondary streets to give drivers good alternatives to the busy, congested, accident-prone highway. Potential secondary cross-town streets like Manzanita or McLane either remain in a wretched state of disrepair or face major problems as a result of putting faster traffic on residential streets.
The town also has significant issues when it comes to protecting and expanding its crucial commercial sector. Most businesses remain critically dependent on luring drivers off the highway, often with minimal signage and problems related to congestion. The town’s tax revenue comes mostly from sales tax, which means businesses provide the money for police and fire protection.
Payson has long struggled to bolster its commercial sector and to create a pedestrian-friendly retail area along historic Main Street, longing for the kind of dense, sales tax generating downtowns found in Flagstaff and Prescott.
But even before the real estate collapse and the rise in unemployment, those efforts had proven only fitfully successful.
The college plan would provide a major economic boost, but will not create a new commercial area.
The college development would end up without a direct connection to existing commercial and retail areas. Advocates say they want the students and workers to shop at existing commercial areas.
“The movement has tried to minimize transportation between home and businesses, home and shopping,” said Evans at last Thursday’s council meeting.
He said planners are seeking “more environmentally responsible ways of planning communities. But as we grow, we will continue to endure traffic congestion. It’s not as bad as LA and we’re not going to be a Prescott Valley — but there has to be a better way.
“I don’t know that we need 30-story skyscrapers — but well-designed skyscrapers have a much lower impact on the environment. So I would encourage citizens to roll up their sleeves and get involved.”