Prospects for a college campus in Payson got a major psychological boost Wednesday when Arizona State University Vice President Richard Stanley told an overflow crowd, “I can’t give you exact timing as to when all this is going to happen, but all of us want this to happen as quickly as it can.”
However, Stanley quickly added, “of course ‘quickly’ in your world may be different from ‘quickly’ in my world.”
Stanley’s presentation on plans for an ASU campus that would start with perhaps 1,000 students and grow eventually to 6,000 students represented the first time a top ASU official has spoken publicly on the prospects for the program.
He insisted the discussions remain in the “feasibility” stage rather than the implementation stage and stoutly resisted committing to any timetable for making a decision.
He said ASU realizes the agreements Payson Mayor Kenny Evans has negotiated to guarantee more than $500 million in funding for the project create a deadline for making a decision in the next few months.
Some 200 people crowded into the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Business Buzz luncheon, including a host of elected officials. All hoped for solid clues as to whether the intensely negotiated deal will actually come off.
Most had to settle for the encouragement of Stanley’s mere public appearance and his vague assurances.
Evans said, “We are moving forward and we are still on schedule,” to open a campus in 2013 or 2014 — when the water from the Blue Ridge Reservoir is expected to arrive in town.
Evans said the two major problems the plan faces remain the slow process of buying 300 acres from the Forest Service and the possibility that the Arizona Legislature will refuse to provide any money at all to support increased enrollment at the state’s universities in the next few years.
Stanley said the Payson program would help ASU meet a primary goal — finding a way to offer four-year college degrees at half the cost of a degree at the Tempe campus.
He said ASU envisions an undergraduate campus offering degrees in business, education and popular undergraduate majors like political science and psychology. The program would also feature the latest in “sustainable” architecture and design and offer certificates and degrees focused on issues important to the region, like rural health care and sustainable forestry.
Payson tuition goal is $5,000
The program would fill a crucial gap in the state’s higher education between the expensive setting of a research university with a host of graduate programs and the two-year undergraduate offerings of community colleges. The plan calls for tuition set at about the level of federal Pell Grants, currently at about $5,500 — a little more than half the tuition level at ASU’s Tempe campus.
In addition, the Payson program would provide the ideal setting for many summer programs for students from existing campuses, given the 115-degree Phoenix summers. “We could find that the campus is busier in the summer than in the winter,” said Stanley.
When ASU started its search for lower-cost degrees, the state provided an $8,000 per-student subsidy for students at the Tempe campus, said Stanley. But cuts in the past two years have reduced the state subsidy to about $5,800 per student annually and forced a near-doubling of ASU’s tuition to nearly $9,000. ASU planners believe the Legislature will cut enrollment support to about $4,300 per student next year.
The ASU planners had always assumed that the state Legislature would provide a subsidy of about $2,000 to $3,000 per student at one of the proposed undergraduate-focused colleges, like the program proposed in Payson. Now, university advocates fear the Legislature may refuse to fund any new enrollment even as it imposes additional cuts in support for existing enrollment.
However, Stanley for the first time said publicly that even deeper cuts in state support for university enrollment growth might not kill the idea of a program in Payson.
“It would be a blow — but it need not be fatal. We’d have to get very creative about the funding and the alternatives — and sharpen our pencils,” he said.
Budget argument favors Payson campus
He said the budget crisis ought to actually provide a major argument in favor of a Payson program that provides a way to cope with big projected increases in the need for college degrees in Arizona at half the cost of enrollment growth on the three existing research university campuses.
“In a rational world, that would be true,” Stanley said in an interview after the meeting. “And we will certainly advance that argument — whether that will prove a successful argument, we’ll see.”
Meanwhile, the town is reportedly also exploring ways to solve the second biggest stumbling block — the effort to get the Forest Service to sell the town 300 acres on which it hopes to build the campus. Congress has already designated the parcel for sale, but the unwieldy Forest Service process could take a year or more. The town hopes to find a way to move forward more quickly on the first phase of the classrooms and dorms while it pursues the purchase of the Forest Service parcel.
The effort has gained new urgency in the past two months as a result of an increase in the cost of bonds. Payson has locked in a commitment for more than $500 million in funding for the campus, including about $100 million in donations. If the town can’t form a community facilities district and start using some of that money in the next six months, said Evans, the town would have to renegotiate the extremely low interest rates.
Evans told the intent audience of Rim Country political and business leaders that a renegotiation in those rates now would add $4 million annually in interest costs to the eventual project.
“Money not only has mass, it has velocity,” said Evans of the need to conclude a deal soon.
Against that backdrop, the still mostly closed-door negotiations between ASU and the town to finalize their partnership have acquired a high-stakes feel.
Evans said five manufacturing firms have opened negotiations with the town about building facilities here, including the world’s largest maker of solar cells. Four of those manufacturing firms say they wouldn’t come if the deal with ASU falls through. A national hotel chain has also agreed to build a 500-room educational conference hotel, but that deal would also fall through if ASU cancels its plans.
Many business advocates believe that the day Payson actually signs a deal with ASU to build the campus here, Rim Country will start its long-stalled economic recovery.
The innovative proposal would insulate the town’s bond rating and taxpayers from potential impacts of the deal by setting up a community facilities district to buy the land and build the campus and the related businesses.
Leases paid by those businesses would effectively subsidize the campus, keeping tuition low. Preliminary agreements would provide millions of dollars for infrastructure, including money to help the town build the Blue Ridge Reservoir pipeline. Evans estimated that just the agreed-upon water impact fees would bring in $1,500 per Payson resident — money that would keep water rates low by underwriting the cost of the Blue Ridge infrastructure.
Evans compared the two-year effort to conclude a deal with ASU to a drive he once took on a hairpin road around the world’s tallest volcano in Hawaii — marked by 1,300-foot cliffs and 600 one-lane bridges. He noted that he loved the drive because he had the steering wheel, but his terrified back seat passenger vowed to never drive with him again.
“This process has been a whole lot like the ride to Hana,” joked Evans. From the back seat, the journey has been crowded with near-death experiences. “But we do have a grip on the steering wheel,” he concluded, “and we do have a plan.”