Payson remains in the running for a four-year college campus — but the race involves more bushwhacking than roaring down a straight-away due to the state’s dire financial condition.
Even so, hope still glimmers for an environmentally friendly, high-tech, four-year campus on Forest Service land opposite Gila Community College — complete with programs specializing in rural health and sustainable forestry.
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans has accumulated $90 million in pledges to buy land and to build classrooms, labs and dorms on an approximately 320-acre campus. The backers for the 2,000- to 6,000-student campus envision a forested site that models “green” construction and architecture — with buildings tucked in among the ponderosa pines on the now-thickly forested site.
Congress years ago identified that parcel on the outskirts of Payson as one of 19 sites ready for sale or exchange. At least 17 of the other sites on the list have already been sold off.
However, the move to establish rural campuses has been effectively sidetracked by the state’s long, intricate budget crisis. Payson officials have been negotiating with Arizona State University, but the continuing uncertainty about ASU’s budget has cast a dark shadow.
The Tempe-based university has already laid off faculty, shut whole departments, raised tuition and dropped classes. Some budget proposals would now essentially “borrow” the university’s $1-billion endowment — which could drastically reduce donations.
“It’s a monstrous challenge we’ve been facing,” said Evans of the university’s budget woes. “That’s why this is all moving much slower than I would like. But right now the very survival of ASU as a premier institution of higher learning is at risk.”
Even if ASU cannot afford to build a campus in Payson, Evans says several other universities have expressed an interest in coming to Payson.
The proposed campus would secure a high-speed Internet connection that would enable students to watch lecturers speaking from almost anywhere in the world. Wiring a new campus with a 100 megabyte per second connection could also provide benefits throughout Payson, where high-speed Internet cables now carry more like 7 or 10 megabytes per second.
The Arizona Board of Regents is exploring the possibility of developing two to four rural campuses, partly to relieve growth pressure on ASU, which has three campuses in the Phoenix area and already has more students than any other university in the country. Studies suggest that it would cost about half as much to educate a student at a small rural campus as opposed to adding capacity at the existing large suburban campuses.
Evans said that the campus in Payson could include elements of public-private partnership to build facilities and that the town would provide police and fire protection, along with utilities like water.
“We’re breaking the mold and starting from scratch,” said Evans. The university is not going to be the manager of the dormitories, not going to provide sewer and water and landscaping and streets — all of that is going to be provided by virtue of them being inserted into a community.”
Gila Community College has so far supported the plan, since the college would connect directly to the programs at GCC. The relationship would likely resemble the link between ASU’s West Valley campus and Glendale Community College, since many students start at the community college then finish at the ASU branch campus.
Advocates for Gila Community College note that the connection to a new four-year campus aligned with ASU might help them make the case for equalizing funding since Gila Community College right now gets half as much money per student from the state as the other community colleges statewide.
So far, a number of the roughly one dozen pledged donors have been individuals and foundations interested in “green” forest products.
Forestry graduate program
The campus could include a graduate program in forestry operated by the U.S. Forest Service. Donors have expressed interest in supporting programs in sustainable forestry and ecosystems. Research suggests that millions of acres of overgrown, fire-prone forests in the region could provide fuel for certain sustainable wood products industries and alternative energy plants.
“The whole concept is to build this campus from the ground up as a green campus, so it will be funded by ‘green’ money,” said Evans. “It will fit into the environment, instead of ripping that environment out and replacing it with a traditional college campus.”
Another block of potential donors has expressed interest in supporting programs to improve rural health care. Gila Community College already offers an innovative nurse training program. Improving access to health care, training rural doctors and health care professionals and using new technologies to connect rural doctors to urban specialists have all been focal points for research at places like the University of Arizona medical school.
However, the state budget crisis has stalled most discussions, as ASU scrambles to fight off deep budget cuts that show up in various versions of the state budget.
“People talk about the 900-pound gorilla — but that’s the 12-million-pound oil tanker for ASU,” said Evans.
ASU has increased tuition significantly in recent years, developed an endowment and brought in more grants — dramatically reducing the percentage of its budget it gets from the state’s general fund.
However, some of the legislative proposals for the current year would actually sweep private money and grant money the university has collected to apply to closing the state deficit.
“The relationship between the legislature and the university system has simply got to improve,” said Evans.
Gov. Jan Brewer has opposed the proposal for the state to “borrow” ASU’s billion-dollar endowment, said Evans.
Waiting for the budget
“On the other hand, ASU and U of A are on the edge of their seats waiting to see if we’ll get down to the 11th hour again and they’ll be the sacrificial lamb that gets a budget done that both sides can agree to.”
That’s why Evans has continued conversations with other universities interested in locating to Payson.
He said the proposed campus would immediately become one of the biggest employers in town, with several hundred employees.
Moreover, students would interject money into the local economy. Best yet, universities tend to be a stable source of income for a community, unlike things like construction and tourism — both prone to economic downturns. Enrollment actually often increases in universities during recessions, as people seek to retool themselves.