Payson Council Oks Next Round Of College Talks

Joint meeting and executive session move plan to build four-year campus

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Payson and Arizona State University have entered a new phase of negotiations. ASU and Payson are intent on building a four-year college campus in the next few years.

The Payson Town Council met first with top officials from ASU and then with its own legal experts before Thanksgiving. It then gave Mayor Kenny Evans and the town staff full authority to move the negotiations forward.

Both sides plan a conference in the next week or two to outline some of the key issues they’ll need to agree on. Several weeks ago, ASU and Payson agreed to negotiate with only one another between now and March about building a college in this region.

Perhaps the most important hurdle hopped already was Evans’ ability to raise some $70 million in pledges, which ASU officials have said is more than enough to build a four-year campus for about 1,500 students located on a 300-acre chunk of Forest Service land across the highway from Gila Community College’s Payson campus.

“We’re hoping to make the next series of decisions about how to move forward the end of this week or next week,” said Evans. “No one else in the state has ever broken this ground to authorize the kind of partnership we’re proposing.”

Arizona State University officials want to use the proposed, new, undergraduate-focused rural campus as what amounts to the start of a state college system, to create a low-cost way for students to earn a four-year undergraduate degree in fields that don’t require a lot of expensive research university infrastructure — like English, liberal arts, history, psychology or other majors.

The campus would also likely develop some specialized programs, like rural health care and sustainability.

Backers hope that the offerings would dovetail with the program at Gila Community College, so that students could mix and match courses on both campuses to earn an undergraduate degree as quickly and cheaply as possible.

The campus would likely take advantage of new technologies so that students could also sign up from classes offered at ASU’s main campus, which they could view through an ultra-high speed Internet connection in a wired classroom in Payson.

ASU officials say they would want to develop a campus where student tuition would not exceed the level of Federal Pell Grant scholarships — which could end up being 30 to 50 percent less expensive than getting a degree at ASU’s Tempe campus.

However, realizing that goal could require some innovative approaches to building the campus, which backers hope will be nestled in the forest on the thickly wooded 300 acres now owned by the U.S. Forest Service, but already earmarked by Congress for eventual sale or trade.

Evans hopes to create a new form of public private partnership, so that private developers could not only build classrooms and dorms and administrative offices on about 150 acres but also perhaps a convention hotel and commercial and retail space fronting the highway.

The details concerning leases, land ownership, construction and the types of private businesses that could become part of the campus complex have all yet to be determined.

Preliminary plans call for a campus that would use “green” architecture and systems to minimize energy use and integrate the campus into the forested setting.

Council observers said the meeting with ASU officials was detailed, frank and productive — with many issues in need of resolution, but no key disagreements so far.

The second long executive session meeting centered on the complicated legal and legislative issues the plan raises. The negotiators will have to work out the relationship between the town, the local community college, ASU and private developers before striking a deal on the project.

The publicly posted agenda indicated that the discussion centered on legal advice on negotiations, working out the details of some of the necessary contracts, and discussions concerning the sale or lease of property in conjunction with the deal.

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