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Rural Arizona has a long road to develop its economy

A broadband line from Show Low is coming.

Not sure when.

Not sure what it will look like.

Not sure it will solve the outages that have plagued Rim Country .

Officials say it will bring faster and more reliable internet service, which will support telecommuting, telemedicine, and high-tech businesses.

Some wonder why it took five years and multiple outages?

Just ask the bevy of economists, elected officials and private business leaders who met in Payson five years ago at the Arizona Association for Economic Development (AAED) roundtable in Payson.

The group spurred the development of a broadband consortium that played a key role in finally convincing Cable One to string a new, high-speed cable from Show Low to Phoenix.

Last week, the AAED group again assembled in Payson for another roundtable discussion.

They celebrated the announcement the region could have better internet service in as early as 18 months. But they also talked about what comes next in developing the region’s foundation for economic growth.

“I feel very very confident that we are going to achieve a lot,” said Payson’s Mayor Tom Morrissey.

He said his connections with the Department of Interior and Department of Veterans Affairs are “resources available to us that were not available before.”

Gila County Supervisor Tim Humphrey looked forward to working together to solve the region’s economic challenges.

Linda Oddonetto, Globe’s economic development director, said Globe has lots of ideas for tourism.

And Bobby Davis, Payson’s economic development specialist, said Payson’s ready to grow.

But given how long it took to improve broadband access to Rim Country illustrates the challenges economic developers face.

Mac Feezor can tell you what it took, since he’s spent the last five years as a member of the broadband consortium formed after the last AAED meeting.

Consortium members spent hundreds of hours, local organizations pledged millions of dollars and backers went through one alternative after another to push through a solution for the internet and cell phone outages that have plagued Rim Country.

On top of all that, “it took a lot of negotiating,” said Feezor.

But that’s what it takes to develop the infrastructure necessary to lure job-producing businesses to the area.

The AAED underscored that message in the May 16 roundtable of elected officials, economic development staff and business leaders from Gila, Apache, Navajo, Pinal and Coconino counties at the Mazatzal Casino.

“If you don’t plan ahead you are caught off guard,” said economist Jim Rounds, a former Joint Legislative Budget Committee staffer turned consultant. “Arizona is outperforming the rest of the country, but the rural areas are not enjoying the same success.

He said rural areas can’t compete without robust broadband, adequate roads, exemplary education and solid health care. He said until local governments spend the money to make a positive economic impact, businesses will look elsewhere.

But “how do you get through to people when it’s so complicated?” he said. “You have to come up with a story that asks, ‘Why does this matter?’”

Payson faces these questions as it seeks to invest the additional $3 million it collected after raising the sales tax.

Should the town invest in roads?

What about Main Street?

Signage?

What will provide the biggest bang for the buck?

Payson will have to do something if it wants to evolve from a pit stop into a community that provides careers for its youth.

Rim Country’s quest for broadband offers one step.

But as with any quest, the characters in the story face pitfalls and challenges. To give up, they fail. If they continue they could find success — but it’s a risk.

The consortium faced such a challenge when CenturyLink refused to negotiate an affordable solution to broadband redundancy for Rim Country.

Feezor said it made sense for CenturyLink to partner with the consortium because the company owns the line from Camp Verde to Phoenix.

“We offered money, our connections and expertise,” said Feezor.

Members of the consortium provided expertise — Feezor spent his career as an engineer and is part of the Citizens Emergency Response Team.

So did Greg Friestad, a longtime Rim Country resident and former cable company engineer and designer.

Local groups offered funding and connections with government officials and businesses to help find a solution.

Bobby Davis, economic development for the Town of Payson, provided town connections.

And APS joined the consortium.

Even with all that economic and political power, CenturyLink rejected an offer to partner with the consortium.

That seemed to slam the door shut.

So the consortium turned to Cable One, which has now pledged to bring a high-speed cable to Payson within 18 months.

Still, the whole struggle took more than five years and it’s still not over.

This year, broadband was one of the topics discussed, but other topics included workforce training, affordable housing and business infrastructure development.

AAED broke the meeting up into roundtables. Once AAED collects the responses, it will put together suggestions for legislation.

“The mission of AAED is to provide a voice advocating for economic development through training, public policy and collaboration,” said Joyce Grossman, executive director. “It’s a group of people that want to improve the Arizona economy.”

That means improving all of Arizona’s economy, not just the metro areas.

Michele Nelson / Michele Nelson/Roundup  

Skip Becker, the AAED Rural Committee chair says he supports investing in Arizona’s rural communities.

“I think the underlying message is to invest in our future,” said AAED Rural Committee chair Skip Becker.


Calendar
featured
Chamber sees the light, new sign installed

Visitors to Rim Country are now welcomed by an electronic sign at the Chamber of Commerce.

Paid for by the Town of Payson ($23,000), Gila County ($5,000) and Arizona Aspire ($5,000), the sign will announce events on a rotating basis.

A dedication for the sign Tuesday drew almost 40 people. It also marked the one-year anniversary for Maia Crespin, the chamber’s executive director.

Just a few weeks ago it was unclear when the sign, made by Ice Signs and installed by Ironhorse Signs, would be installed. A record snow storm in February collapsed the structure where the sign was stored, damaging it.

Ironhorse Signs’ owners got the sign repaired and it was mounted on a stone pedestal built by La Roca Masonry. Sparky and Sons completed the electrical work.

“It’s the highest resolution sign they make,” said Heather Oberg, with Ironhorse Signs. “10mm per pixel. Other signs in town are 20mm per pixel.”

Ironhorse was still making last-minute adjustments to the sign as ribbon cutting attendees arrived Tuesday.

“I think the sign is beautiful,” said Crespin. “I want to thank the Town of Payson, Gila County, Arizona Aspire, the chamber board of directors and everyone else who made this possible.”

The sign will not display advertising, “a stipulation of the Town of Payson,” said Crespin, “as it is partially funded with taxpayer money.”

In Crespin’s first year as director of the chamber, she says membership has doubled, currently at 328 members.

The chamber recently partnered with Axis Culture Group to offer a six-week workshop on marketing, branding, company culture, customer service, social media and optimizing chamber membership.

Follow the chamber on Facebook @rimcountrychamber or visit rimcountrychamber.com for details on membership and upcoming events.


Schools
Override election
Anxious school board will seek voter approval of override extension

A fretful Payson School Board this week asked for a resolution to be brought to them at the next board meeting to seek voter approval to continue a 10 percent budget override that produces $1.2 million annually for the financially strapped district.

Superintendent Greg Wyman said voters have repeatedly approved the 10 percent override since 2004, with money going to reduce class sizes, provide advanced classes for high school students, bolster technology programs and support music, physical education and other programs.

The law would allow the board to change those priorities or seek a 15 percent budget override for specific purposes. The 10 percent override would simply extend the existing programs and tax rate. Taxpayers would therefore see no increase in their tax rate. However, a 15 percent override would boost the district budget by about $600,000 for specific programs and purposes and so increase property tax rates.

“If you chose to go out for the 15 percent and it fails, then you will have to start the three-year phasedown. So if you don’t pass the 15, you lose the 10.”

After briefly agonizing over the choice, the board told Wyman to bring to the June 10 meeting a board resolution to extend for five years the existing override. If voters reject that measure in November, the district will have to cut $400,000 in each of the next three years as it phases out the override money.

Wyman advised the board not to change the priorities for the 10 percent proposal, since voters have repeatedly approved the existing list of programs.

“You have to be careful in writing your language for an M&O (maintenance and operations) override. If you say we’re going to change to something different and it passes, then you have to find another way to fund those items that are currently being funded by the M&O override, such as music, or whatever it is. That’s why I recommend you go with the same language for the M&O override that is currently in place.”

Board member Jolynn Schinstock said, “So if it doesn’t pass, voters know these are the things you’re looking at cutting.”

“It’s critical that the community sees this as a matter of promises made, promises kept,” said Wyman.

Board member Shane Keith said loss of the override would prove “devastating” to the district’s roughly $14 million budget, with the overwhelming majority of the money going to salaries. Arizona already has among the lowest teacher salaries and largest class sizes in the nation.

State law allows districts to exceed the state spending limit with voter approval, renewed every five years. The current system evolved out of assorted court cases after judges ruled the old property tax based system allowed rich districts to spend far more per student than property-tax-poor districts like Payson. The current system attempts to “equalize” funding by collecting property taxes from the richest districts and sharing them with property-tax-poor districts.

However, lawmakers also gave districts a limited ability to spend more with the support of local voters. School districts also have a limited ability to seek voter approval for bonds, although the state remains responsible for major capital projects — like new school buildings. The state has refused to actually fund the capital improvement budget statewide for most of the past decade.

Many school districts have come to rely increasingly on the override money, with the state still roughly 48th nationally when it comes to per-student spending.

In 2018, voters statewide approved 77 percent of the school bonds, operations overrides and capital overrides. However, many school districts can’t reliably pass the overrides and have all but given up, according to the Arizona Education Association.

In 2018, voters approved all seven of the 10 percent override requests for capital spending and 19 of the 24 efforts for maintenance and operations overrides. Voters approved seven of the 12 bond requests for specific projects.

So statewide, only about 70 percent of the override efforts won voter approval.

Payson schools have enjoyed mostly consistent support from the community. Only 24 percent of students attend the 39 districts like Payson with a 100 percent pass rate. About 43 percent of students live in districts with pass rates above 50 percent. About 12 percent live in districts that have never passed an override or bond issue.

All told, only 28 percent of students live in districts that can reliably pass bonds and overrides, said Anabel Aportela, research director of the Arizona School Boards Association.

School bond issues have not fared as well as overrides. The pass rate for bond issues has fallen to just 58 percent — the worst in years.

Overall, the number of districts seeking override money for voters has declined steadily since 2004, likely because districts that can’t muster community support have increasingly given up, said Aportela.

Most of the money raised by overrides and bond issues goes to districts in Maricopa County, although there are three times as many districts outside that county. The pass rate for operations overrides inside Maricopa County is 74 percent, compared to 62 percent in outlying counties.

That makes the support of Rim Country voters for the school measures even more noteworthy.

The big difference in community support means the system still creates a system of winners and losers when it comes to per-student funding

“When I hear lawmakers say districts have an average of $600 per student in bond money, I say, well, no: There are 40 districts that have bond money. The rest of them don’t have any. It might average out, but that doesn’t mean everyone has those dollars. Same with overrides and capital overrides,” said Aportela. “Why does it matter? If you think about funding and all of the needs that districts have and why they go out for these, only less than a third — 28 percent of students — are in a district that can reliably pass one of those measures, meaning that since 2011, they’ve passed everything they’ve gone out for.”

Payson voters have routinely extended the M&O override and in 2006 also approved a school bond issue for upgrading and maintaining facilities.

The latest extension of the $1.4 million operations budget would not help the district with another problem, a $12 million accumulation of deferred capital improvements detailed in a consultant’s report. Those improvements include a host of changes to improve security on the district’s four campuses in the event someone with a gun seeks access.

The consultant recommended the district budget $3 million to $4 million annually to catch up with the long-deferred capital needs. Instead, the budget usually spends about $300,000, including the last of the money raised by the sale of Frontier Elementary School.

The Legislature has failed to fund the court-ordered capital funding plan for schools statewide. Gov. Doug Ducey has sought funding for the capital funding formula for the first time in years. But lawmakers have so far not adopted his proposed budget and an alternative Senate budget features significant cuts in the money Ducey proposed for schools.

In the meantime, an anxious Payson School Board asked Wyman to return in June with a formal resolution to put a continuation of Payson’s 10 percent M&O budget on the ballot.

paleshire@payson.com


Local
Tonto Natural Bridge remodeled walkway to be scrapped

Just a year after a pedestrian bridge was rebuilt at one of the most popular tourist destinations in Rim Country, it needs to come out.

In May last year, the pedestrian walkway on the Gowan Trail was completed two weeks early and on budget.

But while building a new footbridge on the original supports saved time and money, it left the footbridge stressed and officials deemed it unsafe. Now, the bridge must be moved out of the 100-year flood plain and replaced.

Background

Former State Parks Director Sue Black and Tonto Natural Bridge State Park manager Dan Roddy pushed an ambitious list of projects and park enhancements — all with short deadlines.

Before long, there were allegations of cutting corners and shoddy projects.

An archaeologist and former state parks employee then released documents that alleged archaeological sites had been disrupted throughout the state parks. This resulted in multiple ongoing civil and criminal investigations.

Gov. Doug Ducey fired Black in November along with deputy director Jim Keegan. Roddy was promoted and moved to Lake Havasu State Park.

Ducey appointed Robert Broscheid as the new director of state parks in February and Sarah Kirk came on as the bridge’s new manager earlier this year. She recently resigned for unknown reasons.

All the while, nobody within the parks system would talk to the Roundup about questions that a garden at the bridge was built in an archaeological site or the status of the new pedestrian bridge.

The park had closed the Gowan Trail and bridge through the winter due to ice and snow. In the spring, officials re-opened the trail, but kept the pedestrian footbridge closed.

New leadership

After months of “no comment,” the Roundup received an email May 21 from Arizona State Parks and Trails community relations manager Micaela Larkin.

Larkin’s email referenced “a proposed budget plan, including a FY 2020 capital appropriation of $1,250,000 from the state parks revenue fund to construct a new pedestrian bridge at Tonto Natural Bridge State Park and remove an existing pedestrian bridge.”

When she learned the Roundup had questions about the footbridge, she conferenced in Broscheid.

Broscheid said he understands that the park is important to Rim Country residents and visitors and is doing everything in his power to replace the footbridge.

Two inspectors assessed the status of the footbridge in February, just before Ducey appointed Broscheid. They determined it is stressed and unsafe.

The entire pedestrian bridge needs to be replaced and moved out of the 100-year flood plain, they said.

“The money budgeted gives us the opportunity to get the plans, then return with them to the Joint Committee on Capital Review,” Broscheid said. “At that point, we would like to get up to Payson and show everybody what this will look like.”

The parks system is working with an engineering firm on the plans, but says it will take time to complete.

If approved, Broscheid estimates deconstruction of the old bridge could be done before winter weather suspends the project.

The new bridge could be in place by the summer of 2020.

“It’s important we make it safe for the public and build it to last for 100 years,” he said. “If we’re going to spend this kind of money we should get a quality project that the public can rely on.”

Broscheid said he is committed to getting the pedestrian bridge replaced.

Tonto Natural Bridge State Park visitors contribute an estimated $7 million a year in revenue to the Rim Country economy, according to some estimates.

While the footbridge and observation deck are closed, the Gowan Trail and other trails and observation points within the park are open.

As of press time, the state had not passed a budget and the funding for the bridge repairs was still in limbo.

There is no update yet on the archaeological investigations.