‘Breakthrough’ In Talks On College In Payson

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A “breakthrough” in the long, careful negotiations between Payson and Arizona State University should lead to an agreement within two weeks to build a branch campus here, perhaps by 2011, according to a source close to the negotiations.

The campus, located on 300 acres of Forest Service-owned land off Highway 260, would initially accommodate 2,000 to 3,000 students, but could grow eventually to 6,000 students. Located in the world’s largest ponderosa pine forest, the campus would be built as a “green” facility — renewable and sustainable.

The full campus could cost up to $500 million to build. Tens of millions in pledges have already been rounded up, which should be enough to buy the land and build the first phase of construction, according to sources.

The Payson campus would enable students to get a full bachelor’s degree within a 70-minute drive from the main campus. ASU has also developed a model for working with community colleges, which should dovetail with Gila Community College, which already offers many lower division courses and has 1,700 students.

In addition, the campus would specialize in rural health care, forest management and green energy research and programs. Backers hope an energy efficient design and materials will set off the emphasis on the study of topics like urbanization, resource utilization and environmental responsibility.

Mayor Kenny Evans has been in discussions with ASU for months about building a campus in Payson, which could likely provide an undergraduate degree for about half the cost of offering the same classes and facilities in Phoenix or Tempe, where ASU is bulging at the seams. ASU has more than 55,000 students enrolled at three Valley campuses, making it the largest public university in the country.

ASU had delayed making a firm commitment, in part as a result of deep cuts inflicted by the Legislature this year in a desperate effort to balance the state budget. ASU has laid off part-time faculty and shut down many programs, trying to accommodate the mid-year cuts.

Negotiations moved forward after the University of Arizona and several private universities expressed interest in building a campus in Payson.

The two sides now hope to move to a “memorandum of understanding” within the next two weeks, detailing the proposed campus and the commitments on each side. That would then lead to a formal “memorandum of agreement” within 90 days.

The current schedule envisions a construction start of sometime in 2011 and classes starting in 2012, according to sources close to the negotiations.

The current, rough plan would start with perhaps 2,000 students, with about two-thirds of them from outside the immediate area.

Many students would live on campus, if plans for public private partnerships to build dorms and apartments come to fruition.

The campus would offer premedical and probably nursing degrees, part of an effort to improve the supply of medical professionals to rural areas. Gila Community College already has a strong nursing training program, which could partner with the new college.

Backers hope that developing pre-med, nursing and other health-professional degrees on a rural campus could eventually contribute to easing the serious shortage of medical professionals in rural areas of the state.

In addition, the tentative plans would push to develop degree programs and departments that would emphasis green energy, especially projects, technologies and research that would contribute to clean industries that would make sense in the middle of an overgrown forest, with the need to thin and use millions of acres of spindly trees.

In addition, the campus could focus on new sources of energy and sustainable management, like wind and solar.

The campus would also include a lifelong learning center, with programs aimed at retirees and working adults. Currently, retirees make up a huge chunk of the enrollment at Gila Community College’s Payson campus.

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