Payson remains a tiny private island in a public forest sea.
Good thing, because without the boundless recreational potential of the national forests, Payson would find itself badly undersupplied with parks and stuck with a fragmented, unfinished trails system.
The perhaps-surprising conclusion emerges from the otherwise bland pages of the $200,000 draft of the once-a-decade overhaul of the town’s General Plan.
The consultants who prepared the plan intended to provide a blueprint for growth in the next decade will seek added suggestions at a Monday, Aug. 12 planning commission meeting at 3 p.m. in the council chambers.
In the meantime, this second part in a series on the blueprint for Payson’s future will look at the proposals for open space, parks and recreation. Future stories will look at land use and transportation.
Carpeted with trees and surrounded by trout streams, dirt roads, scenic vistas and thick forests, Payson’s economy depends on tourism. Moreover, surveys of residents reveal deep support for recreation and the environment, but deep-rooted discontent among most residents younger than 45.
Unfortunately, when it comes to public parks and amenities within the town limits, Payson falls well below the national standards.
Plans in disarray
The General Plan draft reveals that the town has made little progress in the past decade in achieving several top goals, including adding to the number of parks,
extending the existing, fragmented Payson Area Trails System, improving the capacity of the Payson Event Center or implementing an ambitious plan to turn the American Gulch drainage area into a first-rate amenity.
Of course, much of that collapse in ambition connects to the collapse of the region’s housing market five years ago with the onset of the recession. Although the Phoenix housing market has largely recovered, Payson’s still singing the building blues. The town went from approving 250 or 300 new homes annually before the crash to 20 or 30 homes annually in the past four years.
The loss of tax money and impact fees from new construction together with the lack of new developments to pay for facilities stalled progress.
Setbacks that flowed from the housing collapse included cancellation of a major hotel project overlooking the Payson Event Center, the indefinite delay of a major condominium project that would have included a waterfall and a stream running through the American Gulch off Main Street, collapse of various plans to upgrade Main Street and the virtual mothballing of plans to expand the Payson Area Trails System from 25 miles to 50 miles.
The report demonstrated that overall the acreage devoted to parks in Payson falls well below national averages. Payson has two major parks and several small parks, plus an open-air stadium at the Event Center.
The Event Center remains a frustrating facility, with tremendous potential but limited use. The Event Center hosts the rodeo, weekly horse riding activities and the occasional festival and special events like the Mountain High Games. However, the facility remains badly under-utilized, thanks largely to the lack of amenities and a roof — which limits use to the warm months.
The town has over the years promoted several major plans to improve the Event Center, most of which involve putting up a roof so that the facility could host year-round events like trade shows — which could fill local hotels and restaurants with participants. The most recent big idea involved taking advantage of now-lapsed federal incentives to cover the Event Center with a new roof with solar panels, one of the early hoped-for spin-offs from building a university in town.
The General Plan consultants classified the Event Center as a “regional park,” which means it hosts activities that draw people from beyond the town limits. Typically, towns have five acres of regional parkland for every 1,000 residents. That formula would suggest the town should have 76 acres of regional parkland. Instead, the Event Center has just 35 acres, making it an “undersized regional park.”
Payson does a little better when it comes to district parks, with a wide range of facilities and activities pulling in people from a five-mile radius.
The 80-acre Rumsey Park qualifies as Payson’s district park. It has a public swimming pool, athletic fields, tennis, basketball and volleyball courts, trails, playgrounds and ramadas for meetings and picnics. Rumsey gets intense use throughout the year, but especially in the summer months when the playing fields brim with town leagues. At one time, the Payson Town Council supported teaming up with the YMCA to build a youth center in the park, but voters nixed that idea in a referendum.
Most district parks have at least 50 acres and draw people from a radius of at least five miles. Typically, cities have about four acres of district parkland per 1,000 population. By that measure, Payson should have about 64 acres of district parkland, instead, Rumsey Park’s 80 acres exceeds that number.
It’s mostly downhill from there when it comes to how Payson’s parks stack up to the national average.
Green Valley Park
For instance, community parks provide active recreation facilities. Most total about 20 acres and serve people living within a mile. In Payson, that more or less describes Green Valley Park, built around a series of lakes that let 325 acre-feet of reclaimed wastewater each year soak into the underground water table. The 43-acre Green Valley Park has lakes, ramadas, boat docks, restrooms, a stage, a war memorial, walking paths, the Rim Country Museum and lots of open space for community events, like the car show and the summer concerts in the park.
Most towns have about five acres of community parkland per 1,000 residents. By that measure, Payson should have 80 acres of community parks — roughly twice as much land as in GVP.
Most towns also try to provide neighborhood parks less than five acres in size and mini parks big enough for a playground or picnic tables. But Payson has just one mini park at the corner of Roundup Road and Mustang Circle plus the quarter-acre Deming History Park at the intersection of McLane and West Main Street.
No new parks
However, the town has done virtually nothing to increase the supply of park land since building Green Valley Park in 1996.
The town council did not require any of the major developments during the go-go years to build neighborhood parks. Even when changing the General Plan designation to annex 200 acres of land up near the airport, the town council converted a proposed, substantial park site into a strip of land intended to buffer apartment zoning from single family residential development. The only parkland left in the designation was an unbuildable drainage area.
Former Payson councilman Andy Romance pushed hard for the Payson Area Trails System and the town required most new developments to add sections to the existing fragmented bits and pieces. None of the council members emerged as a strong advocate for the trails system after Romance left.
Time and again, the report makes note of the environmental and recreational value of public land surrounding Payson, but documents a relative lack of facilities within the town itself. For instance, the report notes that protected “green space” or open space not devoted to parks totals 100 acres owned by the town and 4,000 acres owned by the U.S. Forest Service — mostly completely undeveloped forest land that falls inside the town boundaries.
Nonetheless, the draft noted “throughout the General Plan process, the community made clear its support for open space, parks and recreation access within the town.”
Interestingly, an impressive 80 percent of Payson residents older than 65 rate as “good or excellent” the town’s recreational programs. However, about half of the residents younger than 44 rated the recreational programs as just “fair or poor.”
The consultants concluded, “maintaining a modern, first-class parks system and providing for more year-round programming indoors will require significant and ongoing town funds and a strong commitment by the community ... Payson has tremendous resources at its disposal. The combination of these resources and community interest makes Payson an ideal location to implement an extensive trail, sidewalk and bike lane system to connect to current and future development in town.”