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Retail sales have held mostly steady in Gila County, defying the projected impacts of the pandemic and the widespread restrictions the virus inspired.

Sales tax collections in Gila County for July and August barely declined from the same period a year ago.

Payson saw a 9% boost in its sales tax collections by the end of the fiscal year in July. The town took in a whopping $937,000 more than the $11 million in sales taxes it had estimated it would take in for the fiscal year, according to a memo from the town released in response to a Roundup records request.

Payson had originally projected a big drop in sales tax when the governor’s stay-at-home order took effect back in March. Instead, the economy picked up steam compared to last year.

However, storm clouds continue to linger over the economy — with unemployment stubbornly high, the virus still present and state and federal support for businesses and the unemployed drying up.

But at least for now — the pandemic has taken less of a toll on the region’s economy than initially feared.

For Gila County as a whole, sales taxes in August hit $357,000, a 21% increase. In July, the $335,000 collected represented a 15% increase over the same period last year before anyone dreamed of a pandemic.

The figures indicated the economy in Gila County bounced back sharply from the low point in March and April. But even then, excise tax collections totaled $261,000 in March and $276,000 in April.

Economic development professionals said several factors cushioned the impact of the pandemic and the widespread business shutdown. First, people rushed out to buy necessities for the lockdown, boosting sales in grocery, discount and convenience stores. Then people invested their stimulus checks in home improvement projects while stuck at home, boosting sales at Home Depot, Lowe’s, Walmart and Tractor Supply.

Even the summer travel season proved stronger than expected. People canceled long vacations and international travel, but many people replaced those trips with weekend jaunts to rural Arizona.

Moreover, towns like Payson rely on a sizable retirement population — whose income isn’t as strongly affected by short-term shocks to the economy.

Meanwhile, the number of new COVID-19 cases and deaths has continued to decline. Gila County’s still one of four counties statewide that doesn’t meet the state’s benchmarks for reopening schools with at least a hybrid of online and in-person classes. That means restrictions on high risk businesses like bars and gyms also remain in place.

Gila County as of Thursday had just 32 new cases and 0 deaths. That has produced an overall rate per 100,000 population of 2,190 cases and 92 deaths. By contrast, Maricopa County had amassed a cumulative rate of 3,182 cases and 73 deaths per 100,000 population.

Here’s how Gila County’s August excise sales tax collections in key sectors compared to August of last year.

• Retail: $181,000 this year vs. $149,000 in August of last year.

• Restaurants/bars: $43,000 this year vs. $42,000 last year.

• Contracting: $27,000 vs. $26,000

• Lodging: $15,000 vs. $16,000.

• Amusement: $446 vs. $1,100.

• Property rental: $6,100 vs. $6,700.

• Total Excise tax: $335,000 vs. $294,000.

Local economic development officials see a silver lining to the pandemic, the massive shift to telecommuting and the woes of the big cities.

Show Low’s Economic Development Director Steve North commented, “I think we are already seeing people relocate from California, the Phoenix area and Tucson because more of them are working remotely and see rural Arizona as a safer place to live and work with a better quality of life. I think we have an opportunity now and in the future to attract these remote businesses and small business entrepreneurs to the area as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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