After a long struggle to recover from the real estate crash, Rim Country has turned a corner with new stores, stabilization of the real estate market, rising tax revenues – and progress in establishing a four-year university campus with its spinoff businesses.
The area relies heavily on tourism, with a large population of retirees and second-home owners. Payson has about 400 hotel rooms, but sits at the intersection of three national forests that draw millions of visitors annually. Some of the most popular trout fishing streams lie within 15 miles of Payson, with a host of campsites and hundreds of miles of hiking trails.
Home construction played a leading role in the economy before the downturn. At its peak, Payson was adding 300 homes a year to its housing stock. The town has made major strides towards diversifying its economy, with several light industrial businesses opening up in the past two years and plans to build a 6,000-student university, a 500-room conference hotel and solar panel assembly plant, among others.
On the employment front, while Gila County has lagged behind Maricopa County, the county’s unemployment rate in early 2013 remained well behind most other rural counties in the state, with a steady decline in the past year.
Most of the county’s job woes remain concentrated in the south, where the mining industry has struggled. Although at the start of the year construction remained minimal in Northern Gila County, the unemployment rate in Rim Country remained a percent or more below the overall 8.8 percent rate in January of 2013.
While Maricopa County sets the pace for the state with a 6.4 percent unemployment rate, Gila County falls somewhere in the middle of the pack compared with other rural counties throughout the state.
Among those other rural counties, Graham County had 8.4 percent unemployment, tiny Greenlee County had an enviable 5.4 percent, Yavapai 7.9 percent and Yuma a still-awful 27.5 percent.
The impact of the recession on the tourist and construction oriented economy of Rim Country has resulted in an intense focus on diversifying the economy in Payson, which is the largest town in Gila County – almost twice the size of county seat Globe.
At a meeting to discuses a revamp of the town’s general plan, almost 150 people agreed the town should intently focus on reviving — and then diversifying — the economy of a town that once relied on new construction and tourism. By contrast, a decade ago the general plan focused on managing rapid growth without outstripping the water supply. Today, concerns about water and rapid growth have been replaced by an almost single-minded focus on jobs and the economy.
Revenue wise, the Town of Payson saw a modest increase across the board in 2012, with nearly every source making gains from the depths of the recession. Everything from local sales tax, state shared income, vehicle license tax and building permit revenue rose – even the town’s share of gas tax money from the state for building and maintaining roads jumped.
On the business front, a surge in building is giving many business owners and residents hope things have started to turn.
New businesses include Big Lots, PetSmart, Little Caesars, Big 5 Sporting Goods, the Journigan House restaurant on Main Street, THAT Brewery in Pine, Mountain Top Brewery, Lady D’s Wine, Chocolate and Art Bar, Pine Smokehouse and Sweet Nostalgia.