The Halls Of Higher Learning

New college opens doors, opportunities

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When the doors opened in January to Payson's first permanent community college, it was a dream come true for local resident and former EAC Committee President Doyle Coffey, who had spent 14 years working to build a college that would inspire local young people.

For nearly 20 years, Eastern Arizona College had held classes in Payson out of a cramped storefront off Highway 87, but it wasn't the sort of place that beckoned high school graduates to higher learning.

Efforts to build a college campus in Payson actually began in 1990 when the Gila County Community College Advisory Committee convinced voters to pass a secondary property tax levy to fund EAC operations at satellite sites in Payson, Globe, Hayden and San Carlos. The tax generates about $1.3 million a year.

In 1996, EAC bought 54 acres of land near the corner of Mud Springs Road and Highway 260 from the U.S. Forest Service for $830,000.

In the years that followed, Coffey, an advisory committee member, and EAC Dean Don Allen spearheaded an effort to raise enough money to finish the project. Along the way, they became close friends who met a challenge many thought was beyond their reach. With the help of an army of local volunteers, Allen and Coffey vigorously lobbied the State Legislature for the $2 million needed to build the school, convincing state lawmakers to commit $1 million in 1995 and $1 million in 1997 to the project.

College officials hired Stichler Design Group of Phoenix to design the building, which was sent through two rounds of construction bids and a plan revision to trim street and landscaping costs to bring the project in line with the school's budget.

Construction crews broke ground on the project in December 1998, and in the months that followed, great care was taken to preserve the mature trees and natural vegetation that covered much of the site. The building was finished in December 1999 and opened for classes in January.

Allen, who had suffered from a long illness, died in December 1999, just a few weeks before the 21,000-square-foot college complex officially opened.

An open house ceremony celebrating the school's grand opening included a tribute to Allen. As Coffey struggled with the words, he looked at Allen's widow, Jane, sitting next to Rep. Debra Brimhall in a row of dignitaries and EAC officials in the crowded community room at the new facility.

"Without him, it never would have come to pass," Coffey said. "One of his big ambitions before he died this December was to come up and see the finished product. He didn't make it and I miss him."

The $2.5 million college complex includes four buildings, which were designed to blend with the site's natural surroundings.

They house two computer labs, a science lab and preparation room, an art lab, a Northern Arizona University office, an NAU interactive TV classroom, a wellness center, a student gathering area, an administrative service center, conference room, faculty workroom, community room and eight classrooms surrounding a courtyard. Currently about 1,000 students are enrolled in the school each semester, and the college has seven full-time and 40 part-time employees, including three full-time instructors, and 36 part-time teachers.

"Today is tomorrow," EAC president Gherald Hoopes said during the college's grand opening. "Congratulations and godspeed in this great accomplishment."

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