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Peter Aleshire / USFWS photo  

Jim Strogen (right) collects bugs on Tonto Creek with a net, including caddisfly, mayfly nymphs and dragonfly nymphs. The nymphs eventually turn into dragonflys. Anglers like to fish with the larva.

DJ Craig / DJ Craig photo  

Fishing offers one generation the chance to teach next generations. That was on display at the 2019 Optimist Fishing Festival Saturday. Read more about the event on page 3.

Extending Green Valley Parkway to aid evacuation

Four Payson residents hope to complete a road from the Payson Event Center to Green Valley Park as an additional escape route in case of wildfire as well as provide better access to Main Street.

This isn’t a new idea.

“It is disappointing when our founders laid out the roads, they didn’t complete them. There was to be a circle around town,” said Greg Friestad.

Friestad, a 40-year resident, has seen Payson change through the years. He walked the Tyler Parkway hill when it was still just forest. He saw Green Valley Park go from marshy Forest Service property to a lake and popular town park.

And now he wants to see a new project completed.

Working with Mayor Tom Morrissey, Friestad has joined with Jim Muhr and Ken Woolcock to create the Green Valley Parkway Fire Road Ad Hoc Committee.

The road would start at the Mazatzal Casino and Event Center intersection light on Highway 87, go past the Event Center, around a hill and drop down between the two smaller lakes at Green Valley Park.

The roadway would cross tribal, town and Forest Service land.

The committee believes it can find financial support to build the road, which could act as an escape route during a fire.

“There is an absolute need for this,” said Morrissey. “Fire is an existential threat — that is where our resources should be devoted.”

Morrissey is bringing his political connections to the table for this project. The former director of operations for the Arizona Republican Party now works in the Department of Agriculture. Morrissey worked with them when he was chair of the Republican Party.

As an added bonus, the road would create a beautiful entrance to Green Valley Park and Main Street, he said.

“When somebody is coming into town and turning left at the Event Center and driving through that saddle to see that huge welcoming park below, what a way to sell Payson,” said Muhr.

Muhr spent his career in the automotive industry. One of his jobs was to rollout brands such as Mazda and Isuzu in the U.S.

When he moved to Payson almost 10 years ago, he launched into public service working on the 2010 Census committee and Gila County Planning and Zoning. This past election, he was elected to the board for the Northern Gila County Sanitary District.

The ad hoc committee has already connected with the Forest Service who is willing to explore how to create a road in the area. The road will require an environmental impact study.

“We’re not going to look to get the entire property — it’s just a right of way,” said Muhr.

Woolcock hopes that simplifies working with the Forest Service.

“They might move more quickly because it is an easement,” he said.

Woolcock has an engineering background and served as the Chino Hills public works director.

When he moved to Payson in 2004, he joined the town review board. That board approached the Forest Service in 2011 about the road and “stubbed it out as it was going to be,” said Woolcock.

The four men realize the road could take years before it is a reality, but “a lot of this stuff is coming together,” said Morrissey.

Women’s Wellness Forum draws crowd

Women from around Rim Country packed the ballroom at the Mazatzal Hotel & Casino for the 21st Annual Women’s Wellness Forum.

Held April 27, the morning featured an opportunity to learn, discover, socialize and laugh.

Hosted by the MHA Foundation in partnership with Banner Payson Medical Center; Soroptimist International of Zane Grey Country; Payson Care Center; Hospice Compassus; Easter Arizona Area Health Education Center; Rim Country Health and Powell Place, more than 300 women attended along with representatives from 23 vendors.

The day’s theme was “Don’t Worry, Be Happy — Harmony, Balance, Laughter” and included programs on handling stress; fueling wellness and showing there is no wellness without mental wellness.

Concluding the forum was keynote speaker Karen Mills, a nationally touring comedian with a daily program on Sirius/XM comedy channels.

Dr. Ergi Gumusaneli discussed the importance of mental to whole body wellness.

He was the chief resident at the Denver Veteran’s Affairs Medical Center working with the residential PTSD program and Homeless Veteran’s Program.

Gumusaneli is one of the first adopters of telemedicine.

Gumusaneli also has an interest in cutting edge research in mental health like ketamine for treatment resistant PTSD and depression, pharmacogenetics, and neural imaging.

One of his interests in Payson is to help organize a program to prevent kids from committing suicide and helping with the opioid crises.

He told participants at the WWF everyone is truly unique and that is a miracle. Each person is spiritually, emotionally and physically connected in his or her own way.

“Emotional intelligence is not something we talk about and most do nothing to improve their emotional health,” Gumusaneli said.

He said there are three things that are important to live a mental/emotionally healthy life:

• A deep sense of purpose — this is not what we do (for a living), but rather why we do it.

• Surround ourselves with healthy connections — uplifting people, not those that bring us down.

• Accountability/responsibility to a higher purpose.

Gumusaneli said he thinks patience and empathy are virtues that will be vital to the future mental/emotional health of everyone.

“Be part of something bigger than yourself,” he urged the audience.

Mills’ titled her program, “Laughter Lifts You Up.”

“I know the impact of laughter on our mental health and emotional wellness,” she said.

Mills is a survivor of ovarian cancer.

She said over the years she has learned what you focus on expands — worry grows into fear; anger grows into rage; humor grows into laughter.

“Babies laugh 400 times a day. After 35 we laugh only about 15 times a day,” Mills said.

She said laughter fights stress; it improves the immune system; increases energy; and it increases focus.

Mills said she is always asked where she finds humor and she finds it everywhere.

“It’s a mindset. It’s our own responsibility to find joy in the chaos.”

She closed by telling the audience, “By taking your gift and using it to help others you find your purpose.”

Rescues at Fossil Creek begin
It's search and rescue chic

You won’t find these shoes at any store, but a Gila County Sheriff’s Office deputy’s ability to craft a stylish pair of sandals out of medical dressings is garnering a lot of attention on social media.

“They are calling them LaBoutin shoes,” said deputy Cole LaBonte, after designer Christian Louboutin.

On Sunday, LaBonte hiked into Fossil Creek after a group found themselves unable to hike out when their flip-flops fell apart and another member developed heat stroke after they brought just a few bottles of water.

The group of eight from the Valley, who ranged in age from 10 to 32, didn’t even set out to hike the strenuous four-mile trail.

“They were looking around for a place to hike,” he said. “They wanted to go to the water, but didn’t want to hike.”

Despite several signs at the trailhead warning of the trail’s difficulty, the group decided to make a go for the creek, assuming they could reach it in a few miles and not hike the entire four miles, he said.

When they finally reached the creek, a 12-year-old in the group started to throw up and complain of being dizzy.

Along with LaBonte, Pine-Strawberry firefighters hiked in to check on the girl.

They gave her an energy bar and some water with added electrolytes and she started to feel better.

The 32-year-old in the group meanwhile was without shoes after her thin sandals had fallen apart, he said. Making matters worse, just two weeks earlier, she had undergone hip surgery.

Using compression dressings from his first aid kit, LaBonte strung together some straps for her sandals.

Taking frequent breaks, they then helped the group hike out safely.

A week earlier, LaBonte hiked into Fossil Creek after a man called for help when he realized he was not physically fit enough to hike out.

The man had never hiked before. He wore sneakers and carried one bottle of water.

“Every single person that I have been called on to help (in Fossil Creek) makes the same three mistakes: they are not prepared for such a strenuous hike, they don’t wear the right footwear and they don’t bring enough water,” he said. “It is always the exact same thing.”

With the man, LaBonte gave him water, electrolytes and ample encouragement.

“Every 20 to 50 feet we stopped and rested,” he said. “It took us four hours to get him out.”

Instead of Fossil Creek, LaBonte recommends heading to Water Wheel, Horton Creek, Woods Canyon Lake or the Tonto Natural Bridge to cool off this summer.

And if you do try the Fossil Springs Trail, bring water, a snack, proper footwear and know your limitations, he said.

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Travel industry picking up speed

Tourism is booming across the state — especially in Gila County, where it remains a pillar of the local economy, according to a just-released state report on trends in the travel industry.

Money coming into the county through the travel industry jumped 6 percent between 2016 and 2017. Tourism accounts for 20 percent of the jobs and economic activity in Gila County — roughly double the percentage of the statewide average.

The big increase in 2017 contrasts with the previous five years of nearly stagnant spending on travel and tourism. The $294 million in travel spending in 2017 in Gila County contrasts with $260 million in 2008, before the recession hit.

So almost half of the gains in the past nine years came in 2017.

Tourism remains the bedrock of the economy in Gila County — and many other rural areas as well, according to the report by Dean Runyan Associates, commissioned by the Arizona Department of Tourism.

Gila County gets about 20 percent of its sales tax revenue from tourism, one of the highest percentages in the state. Only Coconino, Santa Cruz, La Paz and Apache counties remain more reliant on tourism.

The report effectively underscores the dilemma the Payson Town Council faces in calls for the repeal of its sales tax on food. The town remains almost completely reliant on the sales tax to provide services for residents, but out-of-towners pay a large share of that tax — especially tourists.

The strong gains of the past three years reflect statewide trends, after five years in the economic doldrums.

Statewide, direct travel spending rose 6 percent in 2017 to nearly $23 billion, compared to just 3 percent in 2015-16, the report concluded. Spending on lodging increased 9 percent.

The industry generates about $3.3 billion in tax revenue annually, mostly through the sales tax. That’s roughly half of what the state spends on its K-12 public schools.

Because more than half of the spending on tourism and travel comes from out-of-state residents, it ranks as the state’s largest export industry.

Most of the tax money generated by travel and tourism money comes from sales tax paid by visitors — most of them from other states or other countries. Because the state remains overwhelmingly reliant on sales taxes rather than income or other tax sources, the tourism industry punches way above its weight when it comes to generating state and local taxes.

“Because the travel industry generates a relatively high proportion of sales tax revenues, it is associated with proportionately more tax revenues than would be expected given the size of the industry,” the report concluded.

The sales tax revenue from the travel industry remains critically important to most rural areas, which have lagged behind Maricopa and Pima counties when it comes to recovery from the recession. Even though most of the statewide tourism jobs are in Maricopa County, travel produces less than 8 percent of the sales taxes in that massive county compared to more than 20 percent in Gila County.

In Gila County, tourism generates about $10 million in local tax revenue and $13 million in state tax revenue. That works out to about $1,040 for every household in Gila County. That’s way more than the $750/household state average. Gila County comes in just behind La Paz and Santa Cruz counties on that measurement, but far behind Coconino county’s $2,760 per household take.

The trends of the past several years are encouraging — especially for the tourism-dependent rural areas, concluded the report.

Last year, Arizona’s 6 percent tourism revenue growth rate was roughly twice as great as the 3 percent growth rate nationally. Overall, tourism and travel in 2017 was roughly a trillion dollar industry nationwide. The gains nationally have come despite a slowdown in foreign tourism, likely driven by the relative strength of the American dollar, which makes it more expensive for foreign tourists to visit the U.S.

Nationally, travel industry employment has risen sharply in the past three years, but remains somewhat below the total in 2000.

In Arizona, the travel industry supports 187,000 direct jobs, up just 2 percent in 2017. It also supports 161,000 indirect jobs, with $7.3 billion in earnings, concluded the report.

The report broke out separate statistics for five regions in the state, with Gila County falling into the “north central” region, along with Yavapai County (Prescott). Coconino County — perhaps the most tourist-dependent area in the state — falls into the “northern” region.

The report showed that the north central region has one big advantage over most of the rest of the state when it comes to tourism — business booms year-round. Our region has roughly similar sales tax generation from tourism in all four seasons. By contrast, the northern region booms in the summer and lags in the winter. In the Valley, business booms in the winter and dries up in the summer.

The report stressed the disproportionate importance of travel and tourism to rural communities like Payson, where sales tax paid by visitors pays for things like police and fire services.

The report noted that in Maricopa County local residents account for a large share of the travel and tourism spending. “This is not the case in most other less urbanized areas of the state — leisure and hospitality businesses are generally much more dependent on visitor spending rather than local residents.”

Travel-generated businesses account for about 4 percent of the jobs in Maricopa and Pima counties, but nearly 10 percent of the jobs in the rest of the state.

In Gila County, the travel industry accounts for 14 percent of the jobs – roughly 3,000 out of a workforce of 21,000.

However, that’s about the same number of travel-related jobs as the county had in 2008, before the recession.