Jobs. Jobs. Jobs.
That’s the overwhelming message that has emerged from Payson’s early efforts to figure out the top priorities of the citizenry when it comes to overhauling the town’s General Plan blueprint for future growth.
A recent brainstorming session on Payson’s future drew about 150 people, who broke into groups to come up with a list of their top three priorities for the next decade.
Almost every single group came back with a list headed by job growth — and a diversified economy. Out of 13 groups, 11 listed “job growth” or “diversified economy” as their top priority. The other two groups listed jobs and the economy as one of their top three priorities.
Wow. What a difference a decade makes.
State law requires towns to overhaul their General Plan every 10 years. Payson has just launched that one-year process and it seems like priorities have changed dramatically in the past decade.
A decade ago, the General Plan focused on managing rapid growth without outstripping the dwindling water supply. A few years after adopting the last General Plan, Payson found itself implementing the state’s toughest water conservation and growth control measures, with huge impact fees and a limit of 250 new houses annually.
Then along came the recession — followed closely by securing rights to 3,000 acre-feet of water from the Blue Ridge Reservoir.
Instantly, fear of running out of money replaced the fear of running out of water.
Builders have added about 20 houses annually to the housing stock in each of the past three years, forcing the town to raise water rates to replace the missing $7,500 per unit water impact fee that was supposed to pay for the Blue Ridge pipeline.
In the meantime, a stubbornly high unemployment rate has caused wrenching hardships. The food bank can’t keep its shelves full. A full 70 percent of the families with kids in the schools have incomes low enough to qualify for free and reduced lunches — and 20 percent of the students are “homeless or displaced.” Empty storefronts abound.
As Samuel Johnson once commented, “There’s nothing like the prospect of hanging in the morning to clear a man’s thoughts.”
So judging by the response of the focus groups, Payson residents now remain intently focused on reviving — and then diversifying — the economy of a town that once relied on new construction and tourism to sustain a 4 percent annual growth rate.
Many expressed both strong support and continuing anxiety about the plan to bring Arizona State University to town, along with 6,000 students and various spin-off businesses. Studies of other small university campuses suggest the project could have a potential $100 million to $150 million economic impact. Moreover, many hope that breaking ground on the university will spark an economic revival, given the number of already approved projects awaiting signs of an economic turnaround.
Maria Heller, reporting for her group, said Payson should become a “center for education as well as a tourist destination.” However, she said the town must also cope with a lack of job growth, high impact fees, a “dumpy, depressed” Main Street commercial center with “empty lots, and eyesores that look like Appalachia on a Saturday night.”
Laura Bartlett, reporting for her group, said that “the university is not a challenge — it’s an opportunity.”
John Wakelin said his group concluded the town should focus not only on bringing the university to town, but also on supporting innovation and quality in local schools. Under priorities, he listed a diversified economy, improving the educational system and outdoor recreation. Under challenges, his group listed providing jobs, diversifying the retail base and effectively integrating the university into the community.
Monte McCord’s group suggested including “economically and environmentally healthy” in a proposed vision statement that called for creating a “clean, safe, resilient community” with lots of opportunities.
Joel Mona’s group wanted to add the concept of being a “friendly” town to the vision statement and concluded that a diversified economy, infill development and attracting “green businesses” ranked as the top priorities.
Chris Higgens’ group said that the town must provide job opportunities and maintain roads and other infrastructure — and also deal with the negative view of growth many residents maintain. “It’s time to quell the uprising and put down the pitchforks,” he said.
Town Counselor Su Connell reported that the top priorities for her group were bringing a university to town, improving and promoting outdoor recreation and a facelift along the highway “to make people stay — it doesn’t make the best impression.” In the challenges category, she listed negative perceptions of the university project, the lack of an overall plan for growth and problems with the Forest Service — including access to public lands.
The long, lively session demonstrated how completely concerns about water and rapid growth have been replaced by an almost single-minded focus on jobs and the economy.
The General Plan includes restrictions on land use; a circulation plan that determines how much traffic each street will carry; and detailed projections for housing, resource management, annexations and many other elements. The General Plan provides the overview and the zoning ordinances spell out the details. It’s much easier to change the zoning than it is to change the General Plan, so the once-a-decade process of revising the plan sharply restricts how the town can respond to developers’ projects.
The current General Plan envisions Payson ultimately having 38,000 residents in 20 square miles.
The 2000 Census listed 7,000 housing units, 1,200 of them vacant and 780 of them seasonal. The town had 5,800 households — 4,000 of them families, with an average family size of 2.71. At that time, the town had roughly 11,000 adults and 2,740 children and about 4,000 people older than 65. That means that seniors comprised almost 40 percent of the adult population.
The Payson Townsite was founded in 1882 with a population of 40 people. The tally grew slowly to 200 residents in 1922, then to 500 in 1930. By 1990, the population had reached 8,377. It exploded in the next decade, rising 62 percent to 13,620 in 2000. The U.S. Census Bureau listed the population at 15,171 in July of 2011, but by most estimates the population has declined since then — perhaps returning to 2000 levels.
The General Plan adopted in 2000 projected a population of 19,000 in 2010 and nearly 22,000 in 2015.
The abrupt collapse of the housing market stalled half a dozen major projects already approved by the town council. It also sucked under a 200-acre Forest Service land exchange up near the Payson Airport, which had taken more than a decade to complete. Those projects could all move forward quickly once the housing market turns, which makes the overhaul of the General Plan now all the more important.
The General Plan offers a road map for managing future growth — and establishing the balance between housing, retail businesses and other commercial and industrial development.