KNAU and Arizona News
1:15 pm
Thu August 27, 2009

Recession Hits Home in Prescott

Flagstaff, AZ – The northern Arizona town of Prescott claims to be home to the world's oldest rodeo, founded 122 years ago. The event takes place over a week-long celebration known as Frontier Days. In a summer-long tourist season, it's Prescott's main event, drawing in almost 27,000 visitors over the week surrounding the Fourth of July.

This year, despite one of the worst economic slumps in decades, the attendance numbers were strong. A couple performances had standing room only.

"Instead of travelling a thousand miles or whatever for their vacation, they're cutting back and they're doing it locally," says Rodeo Official Jim Conecny. "And that's the reason we're having all these people."

But one number was way down this year: corporate sponsorship. This is the cash that pays most of the rodeo's big bills. That number was off 40%, or $100,000.

The other side of tourism in Prescott is just down the road, where a parade winds through the historic town center. Through the warm months Prescott is a cool alternative for Arizonans roasting through a Phoenix or Tucson summer. Almost every weekend there's some sort of arts or crafts show under the tall elms of the Courthouse Plaza. This year, though, they aren't doing as well.

"People are just holding back, even for a product in our price range which is ten to forty dollars," says Ken Rhodes of Glendale, Arizona.

Rhodes and his wife are semi-retired. They sell personalized mats at crafts shows across the Southwest to supplement their income.

"Even at shows where there's fairly good attendance like this one you realize there's not a lot of bags going by," says Trish Rhodes.

Arnold Gray, president of a local bank, is heavily involved in civic projects to encourage tourism and create jobs. He says tourism is second only to the building industry as far as the economic vitality of Prescott.

"I've seen numbers that indicate one out of four people are employed in some fashion in the service industry that supports tourism," Gray says.

That tourism, as measured by hotel occupancy, is down more than 20% from last year's levels. And the building industry is in even worse shape.

"Building has all but come to a halt in Prescott in the last couple of years," Gray says.

With tourism at a sharp decline, construction nearing a standstill, housing prices down 19%, and unemployment above 9%, it is easy to say Prescott has seen better days.

"We're up probably fifty, sixty percent in homeless people that we're seeing through our soup kitchen," says Major Kyle Trimmer, who runs the Salvation Army in Prescott.

"Where we used to see single men come through, or a single lady here and there, we're now seeing individuals with children, maybe a single-parent family or possibly a whole nuclear family that's coming through with their children and now eating in our soup kitchen."

Ann Wilson who runs the Yavapai Food Bank says she is seeing the same thing. Business at the food bank unfortunately is doing better than ever, up 40% from over a year ago.

"I hear stories where (people say) I've been working at this place for 15 years. I suddenly got laid off. My husband's been there nine years. We thought we were set for life and all of a sudden he got a pink slip, got laid off,'" Wilson says. "Those kind of stories (I hear) all the time. People that really thought that they were pretty secure are coming here now."

Those who work with the hungry and the homeless in Prescott report seeing a new phenomenon. They're seeing new American migrants traveling from town to town looking for a better chance.

"We used to have the snow birds," Trimmer says. "And when it would get hot in Phoenix they would come to Prescott. When it would get cold in Flagstaff they would come to Prescott. But we have people coming to Prescott all the time now. We have people coming to Prescott looking for jobs. Prescott's a great community but they get to Prescott and there are no jobs."

At a men's shelter four blocks from the courthouse, the scene is the same. "We get guys from Colorado and New Mexico, people from all over, trying to find that stable job," says Rhonda Chambers, who runs the shelter.

"They come and stay a couple of days. They ask have you heard anything? Do you know anybody.' And unfortunately the answer is no."

Michael Marsh and his wife Shirley lost their home in Michigan to a bank. They made their way to Prescott, where their new home is a small donated van.

"It's a good town for the homeless because they aren't harassed to death by the police department," Marsh says.

"You can sleep in some of the parking lots." These twenty-first century Oakies just moving through are of concern to the town.

But Gray sees a bigger and perhaps more long-term problem, with Prescott residents who themselves have chosen to go down the road looking for better opportunities.

"We've found a number of people in the trades that have migrated to Texas or the Mississippi Gulf coast to find work in the construction industry," says Gray. "And while they're in Texas and Mississippi, they're not earning a salary, they're not paying taxes, and that effect has been dramatic and continues to be of concern to all of us in the business community."

Gray and others do find encouragement in the latest economic numbers. But they worry that the recovery, when it finally does make its way to Prescott, will be long and difficult.

-with reporting by John Paxson