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Fierce Payson competitors show they're even better friends in Mogollon Monster Mudda

Jen McDowell envisioned everything she could do with the $1,000 prize for winning the Seventh Annual Mogollon Monster Mudda Elite Women’s title Saturday night.

As the parents of 10-year-old triplets, she and her husband, Ben, have no shortage of projects on the to-do list.

But, as competitive as the 36-year-old Payson resident is, she’s also a great friend. And that was evident to the approximately 200 spectators in the stands at Payson Event Center as she carried her rival for the crown, Trista White, across the finish line.

They train together at Rim Country Crossfit in Star Valley, which White owns with her husband, Rolley, and business partner Danny Rodriguez.

“Trista is just awesome, very motivational, very encouraging, always optimistic,” McDowell said. “We’re good at pushing each other.”

McDowell didn’t like the idea of beating a friend who was hurting. It was the fourth heat both ran during the Gladiator Challenge. And that’s on top of running the 5-kilometer Mudda 13 hours earlier.

“I was leading and she’s in pain because she hurt her knee earlier,” she said. “By that point, you’re mentally shutting down and you’re gonna let someone win and that’s no fun because I know she has it in her. So I was like, ‘You’ve worked just as hard as me; let’s make it fun for the spectators.’”

She said the money would have been nice, but she doesn’t regret the decision to put smiles on the faces of everyone watching.

“I can do a lot of stuff with $1,000,” she said. “But we’ll split it.”

It was a grueling day for both women and several other standout athletes qualifying for the night portion of one of the biggest Payson events of the year. The top 10 women and top 10 men from the morning’s 5K Mogollon Monster Mudda qualified to come back and compete for the $1,000 prize money in the Gladiator Challenge.

A total of 1,192 people participated in the Mudda, which began at 7 a.m. and ended with McDowell and White running the final race at approximately 8:15 p.m., two hours after the Gladiator Challenge started with competitors maneuvering over and through 18 obstacles inside the arena.

White, 34, the mother of seven, said she loves training with and competing against McDowell.

“She’s a beast and she’s a lot of fun,” White said. “She has a good heart, a lot of sportsmanship about her and she’s a lot of joy to be around.”

Phoenix Police Officer Robert Grabeck, 34, of Chandler, won his third consecutive Men’s Elite title. Grabeck, who did two tours of duty in Iraq while in the U.S. Marines, beat Payson’s Lance Chabot in the final heat.

Grabeck really enjoys the Mudda, which is why he’s participated in five of them.

“It’s actually the last real mud run out there,” he said. “A lot of them say they’re mud runs but there’s no real mud involved and this one’s way different, so I love it.”

The format changed. In past years, runners went head-to-head to advance to the next round with the top eight from the 5K advancing to the Gladiator Challenge. So the champions only ran three heats. This year, the top 10 advanced and every run was timed, which meant competitors had to try to complete the course as quickly as possible over and over again in order to assure they’d move on to the next round. And the two finalists ran four heats.

“They changed it up a little bit, so it was a little more challenging,” Grabeck said. “Last year we only did it three times and the fourth time was a little bit rough.”

In addition to the top 10 women and top 10 men, the top four first responders and top four finishers in a media race were supposed to compete for championships in those divisions. However, no media members showed up and the only firefighter or police officer there for the Hero heat was Gilbert Fire Department firefighter Brent Skousen. Many firefighters were called to work on one of the many fires burning in the state.

Skousen is Jen McDowell’s brother. He wound up racing against his brother-in-law, Ben McDowell, who is married to Jen. Ben McDowell finished 11th in the Elite Men’s 5K to just miss qualifying for the Gladiator Event.

Jen McDowell, White, Grabeck and Chabot all ran four races inside the arena on Saturday night, in addition to the 5K in the morning. It was one more race than the finalists ran a year ago.

“We’re definitely thinking about chopping it down to three rounds next year,” said Payson Parks, Recreation and Tourism Director Courtney Spawn.

Editor’s note: See additional Mudda photos on Page 13.


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A long walk to school

If you live within a mile of a Payson school campus, your child can’t take the bus to that campus in the fall, the Payson School Board decided this week.

The district came up two drivers short of what it needs to maintain its full route schedule, due to constant turnover, low salaries and student discipline problems.

The school board on Monday directed incoming Superintendent Stan Rentz to work with the newly established shuttle bus service in town to try to adjust routes to get at least some students within the one-mile radius to school in the mornings.

Board members worried about the safety of children walking a mile to school in a town short on sidewalks, especially if they must cross the state highway. The board directed Rentz to also look into establishing a cadre of school crossing guards — likely volunteers given the district’s financial restraints.

The shift will likely cause major headaches across town. This is compounded by the large percentage of working parents and the system that concentrates each grade level at a single campus, rather than relying on a network of neighborhood schools. Families with several children attending different campuses may find themselves with a major logistical problem getting their children to and from school.

However, the district could reinstate the routes if it can find enough bus drivers.

The Payson School Board approved the plan to curtail routes this week at a five-hour session where it also adopted the district’s $16 million 2019-20 budget.

The district in 2019-20 will spend $1.4 million on student transportation, down just slightly from this year. The number of positions in transportation will actually increase from 23 full-time equivalents to 26.

Chief Financial Officer Kathie Manning said the district has a total of 17 drivers for the upcoming school year, including two drivers still in training for their certification. Drivers include nine regular drivers, five for the special ed buses, one trip driver and two substitute drivers.

The state recently increased the requirements for drivers, including fingerprinting and background checks. The job pays barely above minimum wage and requires many drivers to work a split shift — half in the morning, half in the afternoon.

The transportation director recently resigned and the district hopes to hire a new transportation director this week.

Manning told the board “due to our inability to fill two open driver positions, we will need to enforce the walk zone to a one-mile radius from the schools. This is a bit more generous than the state allows, which is one mile for elementary and middle school and 1.5 miles for high school.”

She noted that Payson for the past eight years has averaged a nearly 50 percent turnover rate among bus drivers. “Research shows that student discipline is among the top contributors to bus driver turnover,” Manning said.

The district recently tried to cope with student behavior problems on the buses by making the school site principals responsible for disciplining students, rather than the transportation department. Bus drivers speaking off the record have told the Roundup that discipline problems increased because the principals don’t have the time to deal with individual incidents.

Manning said the district will use the money it saves from the two empty bus driver positions to pay for two bus assistant positions to ride on the buses on routes with the most discipline problems.

“This will increase student safety, enabling the driver to concentrate on driving while the assistant handles student management,” she said.

This year the district maintained five regular education routes and one special education midday run involving a van and two assistants, rather than a driver. In the fall, the district will cut two regular education routes, leaving parents to figure out how to get their kids to school if they live within a mile of campus.

The board also approved several programs to recruit more drivers, including paying a $200 bonus to any employee who refers an applicant, plus a $200 bonus for any trainee who completes the certification program. If that new bus driver completes a year of service, the referring employee and the bus driver would both get $500 bonuses.

The cost would total $1,400 per new driver. If the district recruits five drivers as a result, it would cost $8,600. The savings from the reduced number of routes would help cover that additional cost.

Manning noted that if the district can find more drivers, it could restart the canceled routes with money from the contingency fund.

Payson’s cost of transportation will increase from $2.64 per mile to $2.69 per mile under the just-adopted budget. The 2018 Arizona auditor general’s report concluded transportation remains the only area in which Payson has “very high” costs, compared to other districts. The auditor general calculated Payson spends $1.573 per rider and $3.96 per mile, compared to a state average of $1.198 per rider and $3.84 per mile. The Payson budget presentation didn’t explain the big difference in cost-per-mile between the auditor general and district figures.Payson has also struggled to keep its fleet of aging buses running, having several with more than 200,000 miles on the odometer. The district did get a new bus this year with money from the state. However, the state has for years refused to fund full district capital needs, despite court rulings.


Photo provided by Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center  

Orphaned bobcat rescued by SWCC


Local
Working for Payson’s economic future

Plan the work.

Then work the plan.

That’s what Payson’s outgoing economic development specialist Bobby Davis has done every month in meetings with business and government leaders.

“This advisory group is to help me move the town along through our five-year economic development plan,” Davis told the assembled leaders in June.

Davis bases the agenda for his meetings on Payson’s Economic Development Strategic Plan. “It’s my bible,” Davis told the dozen attendees.

The plan focuses on helping existing businesses survive while attracting new ones — the only way to boost wages and lay an economic foundation.

Consultant Jim Rounds at the Arizona Association for Economic Development roundtable in May suggested, “I think it’s critical for communities to know who they are. You figure out what your economic profile is and you don’t try to be something that you are not ... you want to find where you have a good return on investment.”

In Payson, that means taking advantage of the tourist economy as well as the climate and outdoor lifestyle.

For instance, helping a young person working at a restaurant gain the skills to one day own a restaurant helps “move them up the income ladder,” he said.

It even works for retirees. “We have baby boomers moving into retirement, but you don’t have a cut off date with a gold watch,” he said. “More and more are setting up businesses. There could be opportunities that had been overlooked. They could teach at the local community college or work at a clinic. These are only partial retirees.”

But that takes public infrastructure — and commitment.

“If you start with a good foundation, then you keep building from there,” he said. “If you don’t have the basics, work on that. It takes a lot of work. It is hard to maintain that level of enthusiasm. It’s like starting a small business.”

During Davis’ meeting in June, a Department of Economic Security representative talked about plans to re-teach and retrain older workers, while creating an internship program for younger workers.

“The key initiative is job creation,” said Jeri Medina of DES.

The principal and vice principal of Payson High School discussed classes and training for their students.

“I am excited both for being the conduit to supply future employees,” said Michelle Doiron, the vice principal. “The kids are soaking it up like sponges because we’re giving them a relevant real-world opportunity.”

Local businesses found out what’s in the hopper for new businesses coming to the area.

Rim Country has addressed some of its challenges to economic growth by guaranteeing a 100-year water supply through the C.C. Cragin pipeline and upgrades to the sanitary district. Now, local officials are working to add high-speed reliable broadband.

With these upgrades to the infrastructure of the town, Payson hopes to attract the following industries:

• Tourism and Hospitality

• Health Care

• Business and Financial Services

• Software and Informational Technology

• Niche Manufacturing: firearms/munitions manufacturing, wood products and/or computer and electronic products.

“What we are talking about is critical and important,” said Davis. “The more we talk about the more we know, especially what we may need to expand and grow.”

Already, the community has several key assets in place or proposed:

• An old-town western square on Main Street, which can create a vibrant destination for local residents and visitors.

• The American Gulch project, a storm water drainage project connected to the Green Valley Lake to provide a lure for tourists and residents with trails for walking and biking.

• The multi-university campus with the potential to attract other higher educational institutions, as well as spin-off research and development operations.

• The Payson Municipal Airport and the Sky Park Industrial Center, home to several key business and manufacturing firms.

• Completion of the trails within town connecting to regional trails.

• Payson Event Center improvements to host year-round events.

Contact the reporter at

mnelson@payson.com


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Woodbury Fire reminds Rim Country there’s always a fire season

The Woodbury Fire consumed 123,404 acres in just under three weeks, offering a grim illustration that a frightening fire may follow a wet winter.

The Woodbury started near Superior on June 8, but hot, windy weather and a rich spring growth of now dry grass drove it north and east. By June 13, officials ordered evacuations in the Roosevelt marina area.

But the fire turned east and as of June 25, residents could return to their homes.

The blaze was 53 percent contained as of June 27.

But don’t look for an early monsoon to put the fire out.

The Southwest Coordination Center, in charge of firefighting resources and predicting the fire season conditions, has “some concerns about both a later than normal (monsoon) onset and less robust burst” than in past years.

The National Weather Service sees patterns setting up over the Pacific this week that could bring moisture, but not for another eight to 10 days at the earliest.

Regardless, Woodbury Fire officials hope to have the fire contained by July 15.

Already, firefighters have the southern edge of the Woodbury under control. Burn out operations along Highways 188 and 88 have stopped the fire’s movement toward residential areas.

So far, no structures have been lost to the fire.

Winds continue to push the fire north and east, but cooler temperatures and calmer winds have slowed the progress, report fire officials.

Fire season weather and fuels

The prediction of an intense fire season at the lower elevations puts Payson more at risk of a wildfire that could overwhelm the town. In the summer, prevailing winds drive fire up slope. A phenomenon the Woodbury illustrated.

Fire season analysts predicted an active fire season in Arizona’s lower elevations because the rain stopped earlier. Analysis also predicted the rains to last longer at the higher elevations. Up on the Mogollon Rim, rains continued into June. Flagstaff received snow in May.

“That’s a rare occurrence,” said Jason Richmond, a Forest Service public information officer.

Now, as the summer moves into July, wildflowers and green grass still cover the ground up on the Mogollon Rim.

In comparison, the non-native grasses of the lower elevations have dried out leaving quick burning fuels.

The fuels of the Woodbury Fire include tall grass (up to 2.5 feet), brush (2 feet) and chaparral (6 feet).

Once they dry out, these fuels burn hotter and quicker than those in a fire-adapted ponderosa pine forest.

“The brush burns really rapidly, those fuels burn faster,” said Richmond.

Then critical fire weather fanned the flames with low humidity, high temperatures and strong winds.

“It warmed with the fronts that moved through,” said Richmond. “The high winds have really helped spread the fire.”

Woodbury strategy

The cause of the Woodbury Fire remains unknown, but its location and behavior left firefighters little ability to fight the fire at its front.

“The biggest obstacle we had was the terrain — steep cliffs and mountain areas ... it is super steep,” said Richmond. “We couldn’t put firefighters on the ground.”

The Superstition Wilderness varies in elevation from 6,200 feet to 1,700 feet.

Steep narrow canyons, choked with brush, line the slopes of the mountainous area.

“Once the fire got down into the chaparral and brush area, it made it spread a little quicker,” said Richmond,

A glance at the fire map shows amoeba-like tendrils snaking away from the ignition point of the fire near the town of Superior up toward Roosevelt Lake.

The prevailing winds spread the fire north and east forcing the fire commanders to shut down both Highways 188 and 88 said Richmond.

But the roads and the Salt River watershed offered a firm line of defense.

“So the decision was made to (do) work on protecting values at risk that they could. The back firing was around those roads,” said Richmond. “They waited for the fire to get to an elevation to put boots on the ground.”

As with the Coldwater Fire near Clints Well on the Rim, fire officials used drones on the Woodbury.

“They have recently been using drones to fly the perimeter of the fire to look for fire,” said Richmond. “They have infra-red cameras, colored pictures and video. Drones go into areas where we couldn’t put boots on the ground.”

Drones have given, “the planning chiefs a better idea of what’s going on.”

With the spread of the fire to the east slowing down, Richmond said officials have opened Hwy. 188 between Roosevelt Lake and Globe.

“They think they have good control of it now,” said Richmond, which allows the Type 1 incident team to start winding down and “making units available for other fires.”

But Rim Country has at least two more weeks of white knuckling it through another fire season.

The Tonto National Forest has declared Stage 1 fire restrictions. No shooting or campfires outside of designated campground fire rings.