Payson and Arizona State University have agreed to spend the next four months in exclusive negotiations aimed at building a 3,000-student campus in Payson.
After months of preliminary discussion, ASU has agreed to talk exclusively with Payson about building a branch campus while Payson Mayor Kenny Evans agreed to hold off on any discussions with other colleges until at least March 15.
Both sides hope to build a campus on 300 acres of Forest Service land near where the Tonto National Forest ranger station now sits at the east end of town off Highway 260, just across from the Gila Community College Campus.
“We have agreed that we will begin a more intensive evaluation and planning effort to determine if a College is feasible and desirable in Payson,” wrote ASU Senior Vice President Richard Stanley in an Oct. 29 letter to Mayor Evans.
ASU hopes the branch campus will enable it to offer a four-year degree at about half the cost of providing the same degree in Tempe. Payson hopes that thousands of students and hundreds of university employees will provide a major economic stimulus in a town now overly reliant on tourism.
The two sides hope to produce a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) by March 15.
“The MOU will include the terms for the partnership, including the nature of the college that would be built, its planned programs, the timetable, and source and nature of resources that will be required of ASU, the Town of Payson and the Payson community,” wrote Stanley. “It will also include an outline of the approval processes needed from the Arizona Board of Regents or state and local government entities.”
The preliminary agreement continued, “during that period of time, ASU and Payson each agree that they will not solicit other partners or pursue other plans regarding an undergraduate college in that part of the state.”
Evans has had discussions with the University of Arizona and at least one private college about building a campus in Payson, lining up alternatives in case the discussions with ASU fell through.
The tentative agreement signed this week does allow for discussions with Gila Community College about forging a strong relationship.
The letter said both sides would “work with and strengthen the community colleges in the region and the university’s programmatic relationships with those community colleges. We all view a strong and productive community college system as an asset to the future success of the Colleges @ ASU.”
Evans said top administrators from the town and the university have met repeatedly in recent months to hammer out the broad scope of the agreement.
The catalyst for the discussion proved Evans’ success at lining up more than $70 million in pledges from private donors and the existence of a 300-acre parcel of land Congress has already told the Forest Service to sell.
The preliminary discussions have focused on building an undergraduate campus offering a full range of classes, including classes actually taught at the main campus in Tempe fed to the Payson campus over a high speed video cable.
In addition, the campus could develop some specific programs that would make sense in Rim Country. That might include a specialization on rural health care and nursing, ecology, green industries, alternative energy, environmental design, sustainable forest businesses and management and other potential programs well suited to the region.
Both sides hope to make the campus a model of environmentally sensitive design, energy use and architecture. Preliminary discussion has focused on setting the buildings, dorms and classrooms amongst the ponderosa pines, junipers and other trees now growing on the thickly forested acreage.
Planners hope to enter into a creative public and private partnership, which would make it possible for a private developer to build virtually all the facilities at a much lower cost than ASU could do otherwise. In theory, Payson could own the land, partner with developers to build the facilities, which ASU would then lease.
Planners envision a forested campus, perhaps like University of California at Santa Cruz, with dorms and classrooms nestled in the trees, built with the latest green technologies.
ASU would only need about half of the available land for classrooms, dorms and administrative buildings, but might participate in developing a convention hotel, a research park or perhaps commercial buildings. Northern Arizona University has provided a model for such a development with its participation in the construction of a hotel on its campus in Flagstaff.
The specific mention of continued negotiations with the local community college may reassure administrators and board members at Gila Community College, who have so far been left out of the loop in the preliminary discussions.
The community college currently offers many lower division college courses. The new college would offer some of the same classes, which means it could siphon students away from Gila Community College.
On the other hand, ASU has often worked to coordinate its offerings with nearby community colleges. Many students take courses like composition and survey courses at the community college, where they pay much lower tuition. However, ASU has worked closely with those community colleges to make it easy to transfer those units to fit into the ultimate, four-year degree.
If the two sides can hammer out the details, they would each sign the Memorandum of Understanding in March. Previous discussions have envisioned a three to five year building process to then get the new campus up and running. Initial plans envision about 3,000 students, but that number could grow to 6,000 students on the land available.
Congress several years ago put that 300-acre Forest Service parcel on a list of lands for sale or exchange.