Payson and Arizona State University negotiators have resolved the biggest questions about building a four-year college campus in Payson, but devilish details remain, according to Payson Mayor Kenny Evans.
Evans said he’s now sure that ASU and Payson will adopt an agreement in March to work out the details of a plan to build a 3,000- to 6,000-student campus in Payson on 300 acres of Forest Service land just off Highway 260 opposite Gila Community College.
However, he described the process of working out the financial details in the next year as “incredibly difficult, but something that can be done with persistence.”
“The efforts have been pretty Herculean,” said Evans, “but I think we have addressed most of the concerns of ASU.”
“We’ve had a couple of great weeks with the ASU folks, with the mayor’s table at the Black and White Ball dominated by senior administrators from ASU,” said Evans. “They were duly impressed and would not have gone to all the trouble of coming up and renting tuxes and bringing their wives if things had not been pretty positive.”
Both sides continue to push for an ambitious dream campus nestled in among ponderosa pines, with “green,” energy efficient buildings blended into the landscape, together with dorms, apartments, a convention hotel, office research parks and recreational facilities. The campus would be wired so students could listen in real-time to lecturers anywhere in the world and work on laptops anywhere in town connected to the Internet. In fact, the campus could make Payson one of the few cities in the state with wireless Internet throughout town.
One major unresolved issue involves Gila Community College’s Payson Campus, which Evans and many local education leaders would like ASU to manage to make sure students can mix and match courses at both campuses to earn a bachelor’s degree. Community college classes typically cost students about a quarter as much as a similar class at the university, so coordinating the programs could offer students another way to reduce costs.
Gila Community College currently operates as a provisional college under the management of Eastern Arizona College (EAC), which charges 25 percent overhead on everything GCC spends. Moreover, GCC gets about half as much per student in state aid.
Currently, state law prohibits universities from managing community colleges. However, Payson and ASU are now working with lawmakers to craft an exception for GCC.
The negotiators have come to rough agreement on all the other major issues that at one time threatened to wreck the talks.
One key issue involved who would get the right to develop some 150 acres of land not actually needed by the university for classrooms and offices.
The Payson plan involves a unique public-private partnership all under the umbrella of a Community Facilities District, which would own the land, contract with builders, impose sales and property taxes within the district, issue bonds and then lease the facilities to ASU and to assorted private developers.
“This is a whole different concept in education,” said Evans. “Our role will be to assure we have a campus where the best technology will focus student efforts on learning instead of how Dad is going to pay for their college.”
Evans said the plan assumes the Payson campus could provide an education at about 40 percent of the cost of sending the same student to ASU’s Tempe Campus.
The district would make use of $70 million in pledges Evans has collected and issue bonds to raise additional money, secured by lease payments. The district would have its own bonding capacity.
The plans call for private developers to build and manage enough student housing on campus to accommodate most of the students.
In addition, preliminary plans call for the development of a convention hotel. Payson has been struggling to attract a convention hotel for a decade and several developers are already negotiating to develop the site, said Evans.
“Universities are finding a real need for some kind of facility like this: They bring conventions, educational seminars — that kind of thing,” said Evans. “So their thinking is that if they can design one in Payson, it can meet all the university’s needs.”
Moreover, the preliminary plans envision “business incubators,” office complexes that would take advantage of the proximity of the facility. One state manufacturer of solar cells has already expressed interest in building a training center in the proposed complex.
Current plans call for the campus to develop programs focused on rural health care, energy efficiency, “green” technologies and forest restoration and industries.
The creation of the Community Facilities District would allow the construction of the campus to move forward quickly, without waiting for any money from the Legislature or ASU’s tapped-out ability to issue bonds.
“From our perspective as a town, we have to be able to demonstrate clearly that what we’re proposing to do is not going to impact the town of Payson’s bonding capacity either,” said Evans. “We’re not talking about subsidizing ASU, we’re talking about running a campus in a businesslike manner that produces a bachelor’s degree at a much lower cost.”
The two sides came close to a rupture on the point of whether the Community Facilities District rather than ASU would actually own the land and develop the hotel and other businesses. ASU has now agreed to that point in principle, but the devil will still lurk in the details of ASU’s lease payment.
“They’d like to lease it for one dollar per student per year, we’d like to charge $6,000 per student per year — and somewhere in between will be the negotiated agreement,” said Evans.
Moreover, town officials want to make sure that the campus isn’t entirely self-contained. They want students, staff and faculty to leave the campus to shop, eat and seek entertainment — so the campus will generate business for the rest of town.
“To have the opportunity to literally grow up together with a campus and have input into its direction from the very beginning is a unique opportunity,” concluded Evans.