Sometime in the next year, Payson will take over the Visitor Center from the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce, ending a decades-long partnership.
The Payson Town Council on July 8 voted to take over the Visitor Center in one to 12 months. The town will pay the chamber $4,000 a month until it can come up with a plan to take over operations.
The unraveling of the partnership started in October when Chamber Director Brenda Case asked for more town money to go to the center that dispenses information to visitors at the corner of Main Street and Highway 87.
Case said the chamber hadn’t received an increase since 2008 in the $36,000 contract, despite increases in the cost of utilities, insurance and staffing. The Visitor Center is mostly manned by volunteers and open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., six days a week.
“Once I was able to calculate specific numbers, I found that the chamber had been absorbing over $14,000 each year in order to run the Visitor Center,” she said.
The pandemic hit the chamber hard. The organization lost both volunteers and business memberships just when the town saw a surge in visitors. Case said she had to cover the Visitor Center to the detriment of her director duties.
“In May 2021, the chamber of commerce met twice with the Town of Payson and presented three funding options to be considered,” she said.
None were adopted.
“The council voted instead, to redirect operations of the Visitor Center to the town’s Parks, Recreation & Tourism Department,” she said.
Town Manager Troy Smith said the chamber’s request for more funding bumped up against the gift clause of the Arizona Constitution.
“The town is not in a position to fund the chamber operations,” he said.
Recent court cases have tightened the restrictions on town subsidies for community organizations. The town must receive services worth the price of the contract or the courts consider town funding a gift. The town currently has contracts with the Humane Society of Central Arizona and the Payson Senior Center to provide services the town would otherwise offer.
Smith said he offered to help the chamber apply for grants, but the chamber did not take him up on this offer.
The details of the transition will include determining what will happen to the building at the corner of Main Street and Highway 87, the extent of the services provided, funding and staffing.
During its June 24 meeting, the Payson council learned other towns pay around $150,000 to provide both chamber and Visitor Center services.
Smith does not believe the cost of only operating the Visitor Center will come to half of that total — or $75,000. However, the staff report didn’t detail the breakdown of the costs for the nearby communities studied because no town could provide that information.
Smith said he has put a cap on costs.
“The town is not budgeting more than what it has in the past,” he said.
Nor does the town intend to leave the building. However, the original deed with the county could force a move if the town shifts the services it provides at that location.
Gila County signed a 99-year lease on the property at the corner of Main Street and Highway 87 in 1990 in order to “develop and maintain a Payson Chamber of Commerce facility and Visitor Center,” according to a quit claim deed approved by the Payson council at the time.
The deed allows the town to also run its economic development operations from the building, but no other services. The town then funded the construction of the building.
Both Case and Smith hope everything works out.
“Please know that although we are sad to see the partnership change hands, without appropriate funding, the chamber does not have the financial or human resources to run the Visitor Center to its optimum level,” said Case.
Smith hopes the town will qualify for the Arizona Department of Tourism certification which would make statewide tourism advertising available.
“I think this could turn into a positive,” he said.
Details of new contract:
The Town agrees to disburse $4,154.16 per month to the Recipient (the “Funds”). The amount to be provided by the Town is subject to appropriation by the Town’s Council. Payment of the Funds will be made in monthly installments for the duration of the agreement and not to exceed 12 months, subject to actual cash flow of the fund from which payment is made.
Scope of Services:
The Recipient shall provide the services as set forth in Exhibit “1” attached.
Purpose of Funding:
The objectives of this Agreement are as follows: i. To attract more tourists and visitors to the Rim Country to increase sales for existing businesses, and to bring in new commerce which caters to the tourism market and expands tax revenue. ii. To increase sales and income benefits for existing businesses. iii. To generate the market and opportunities for expanded food, fuel, lodging, general retail, real estate sales and services in the Town. iv. To encourage new industries and investments in the Town. v. To print and distribute books, pamphlets and maps advertising the advantages of the Town of Payson.