Rim Country Jobs: Bruised, Battered — Still Hurting

Payson Town Hall

Payson Town Hall Photo by Andy Towle. |

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No wonder we’re hurting.

The consultant’s report prepared for the overhaul of Payson’s General Plan has finally put numbers to the region’s economic struggles in the past four years.

Although Payson remains the economic hub for Gila County, the collapse of the construction industry and a shift in the demographics since 2007 now overshadows prospects for future growth, according to figures included in a 2014-24 Payson General Plan Update prepared by

TischleBise, planning consultants the town hired for about $200,000 to satisfy state mandates.

In this series, we’ll take a look at the draft of the General Plan revision, which will go to the voters for ultimate approval.

Today, we’ll look at the economic and demographic trends that underlie the plan overall. Payson currently has a population of about 15,000, but the land use plan currently projects a population of perhaps 40,000 — which, if true, means Payson can still triple in size. However, the overhaul of the plan also reveals that growth has lagged well behind projections made a decade ago — and faces real challenges in a town with a shrinking workforce and an overwhelming reliance on low-wage tourism jobs.

The daunting numbers show that Payson hit the economic wall hard in 2007.

Between 2000 and 2010, Payson enjoyed a 12 percent annual growth rate. Granted, that compared to a 25 percent state growth rate — concentrated in Maricopa and Pima counties. But Payson’s pace dwarfed Gila County’s 4 percent growth rate during that decade, which accounts for the decisive shift of population and economic base from Globe to Payson in the course of the decade.

Even during that growth period, the town struggled to hang onto its young working families — as the retirement population grew.

Then the crash hit. The number of houses built annually went from about 300 to about 20 — where it has remained stuck for four years.

As construction dried up, the jobs blew away.

The job figures tell the tale.

In 2005, the number of jobs in Payson grew by 3.3 percent, compared to 1.4 percent in Gila County as a whole and 5.8 percent in Arizona. The boom peaked in 2007, with Payson’s job base increasing by 12.6 percent, compared to 11.1 percent for Gila County and 3.9 percent statewide. The torrid rate subsided in 2007, with the supply of Payson jobs rising just 2.4 percent — about the same as both the state and the county.

Then everything fell apart. The job base in Payson dropped 4 percent in 2008 and 10 percent in 2009 — a significantly greater fall than the state, which declined 1.6 and 6.8 percent respectively.

But wait. It gets worse.

In 2010, the number of jobs in Payson dropped 11.3 percent, compared to 1.3 percent in the rest of the county and two-tenths of a percent statewide.

As a result, Payson suffered some of the deepest job losses in the region — although it still remains the economic hub for the county. All told, Payson accounted for 43 percent of the county’s jobs in 2007, but just 36 percent in 2010. The report didn’t include numbers for the past two years, although Payson continues to wallow in the economic doldrums.

Add it all up and Payson lost 415 jobs between 2004 and 2010. The decline hit most categories, although health care and social assistance grew 18 percent in the period.

By 2010, health care and social assistance accounted for 889 jobs, retail trade for 792, hotels and food services for 599, art, entertainment and recreation for 484.

Despite strenuous efforts to lure manufacturers and a university, Payson ended the period even more dependent on tourism than at the start. Fewer than half the residents of Payson have a job and 42 percent of those who do have jobs work in the tourism and recreation industries. Moreover, Payson provides 87 percent of the tourism-travel jobs within a 20-mile radius, which means the economy here supports Pine, Strawberry, Tonto Basin, Tonto Village, Christopher Creek and other communities.

The town relies critically on sales tax paid by travelers to support most town services. Payson has a minimal property tax and a hefty sales tax. However, the consultants concluded Payson currently has more square footage devoted to retail sales activity than the population can support — which helps account for the many empty storefronts. The population formulas used in the report suggests that Payson has about 148,000 square feet more retail space than the population can comfortably support, with a big oversupply in grocery stores, building materials, garden equipment and bars and restaurants. The area remains a bit short on square footage for electronics and home furnishing outlets, according to the consultant’s estimates.

The economic shifts have left the town with a mix of advantages and disadvantages.

Payson remains ever-more-reliant on its already substantial population of retirees and second-home owners. The median age has risen to 53, among the highest in the state. Gila County’s median age is 48 and Arizona’s median age is 36.

Payson has a population density of 785 people per square mile, compared to 252 in Camp Verde, 261 in Show Low and 56 for Arizona. The surprisingly high density within the 19 square-mile town limits has a big impact on planning when it comes to the housing stock, retail, transportation and other elements of the General Plan.

The town lost population in two main groups between 2000 and 2010 — those under 18 and those in the 25-44 age group. The loss in the first category helps account for the dwindling enrollment in the Payson Unified School District. The loss among the prime working age group helps account for the contraction in jobs. On the other hand, the growth rate for those 45-65 totaled about 30 percent for that same period — while the population of people over 65 grew by 15 percent.

Payson remains overwhelmingly white, which accounts for 79 percent of the population. Self-identified “Latino or Hispanic” accounts for less than 10 percent, compared to 29 percent statewide. Another 1 percent of Payson residents say they’re Native American compared to 15 percent countywide and 4.4 percent statewide.

Only 10 percent of Payson’s population lives below the poverty line, compared to 20 percent in Gila County as a whole and 16 percent statewide. About 19 percent of Payson’s children live in poverty compared to 5 percent of its seniors.

Perhaps surprisingly, Payson remains short of college degrees. Some 18 percent of the residents have a four-year college degree, compared to 26 percent of the

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