In the wake of the Woodbury Fire, Paul Heley of AZ Stay + Play wants everyone to know that Roosevelt Lake is open for business.
“We had two days where we had an hour of smoke,” he says. “But for the fire to get to us, it would have had to jump the 188 [Apache Trail], the Salt River and Saguaro Lake, so, in our eyes, it didn’t affect anything.”
AZ Stay + Play is located in the Tonto Basin area about 15 miles north of the Town of Roosevelt, and offers jet ski, kayak and paddleboard rentals, but can also create the ultimate lake experience for groups and individual in well-appointed cabins located near the beautiful Tonto National Forest.
In the very near future, Heley also hopes to offer a full slate of desert adventures of the unique Sonoran Desert surrounding the northeast end of the lake.
“We’re your recreation rental resource in the Roosevelt Lake region,” Heley said.
Located about 80 miles northeast of Phoenix, Roosevelt Lake is an undiscovered gem, featuring classic desert landscapes, plenty of recreational opportunities, and 128 miles of shoreline.
While other lakes in Arizona are often packed during peak season and there are often queues to get a craft on the water, Heley says at Roosevelt Lake, getting on the water is not a problem.
A former elementary school teacher with 11 years in the classroom, Heley has been in the personal watercraft business for more than a decade. He worked at a Phoenix jet ski rental business fixing equipment for several years. After buying a half interest in that endeavor, Heley soon found he had to make a choice between teaching and recreation, so he dove into the water with both feet.
He began visiting friends in Tonto Basin a decade ago, and three years ago founded AZ Stay + Play to create recreational adventures on and near the water of the largest lake entirely in the state of Arizona.
“I came up here and saw all this open space and all the fun activities,” Heley says, “so I bought property with money I had from selling my house in Phoenix.”
For about nine years, he commuted back and forth from the Valley on weekends and supported himself as a handyman, but when Heley turned 50, he decided to go all in.
“The thought of renting homes and entertaining people was in my head for seven or eight years,” Heley says. “So when I turned 50 I told myself, ‘hey, it’s happening,’ I’m just giving up everything else putting this in motion.”
A month after his 50th birthday he moved to Tonto Basin permanently. He had two houses to rent out, but had to purchase more equipment
Heley recently hired Staci Zahn, the daughter of a friend and cancer survivor who was living in Columbia, Washington.
She worked for Kellogg’s there, but in January 2017 was diagnosed. After dealing with her health crisis, a family member introduced Zahn, who is all in helping Heley grow his business.
“I’m all in and have a new lease on life,” she says. “I have something to add and I’m excited about this.”
As the business expands services in tandem with improvements to the Roosevelt Marina, which reopened on June 30 after a fire evacuation forced its closure for 10 days, both Heley and Zahn see ample opportunities for growth throughout the lake communities.
“We want to be global and to bring people in five, six 10 days and tour them around the mountains and the lake and make it a full-on vacation destination,” Heley said. “We also want to serve the local people and we don’t want to lose that.”
Most of his business from outside the area comes up from Tucson, as there are other lakes that are more accessible from the Valley, but Heley wants to change that.
“At other lakes, there’s a half-hour, 45-minute wait just to put your boat on the water sometimes,” he says. “It’s crowded, it’s windy, so to spend the extra time driving here for this peaceful lake. There’s a lot to say for that.”
Journalist, writer and editor who has worked for community newspapers for more than 15 years. After four years at Davis-Monthan AFB and a few years living in Tucson, moved to California to find his fortune. He is happy to be back in Arizona, in the mountains he loves.