Arizona State University is “on track” to open a branch campus in Payson by the fall of 2012, said ASU Senior Vice President Richard Stanley.
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans said university and town officials plan to stage a ceremony during which both sides will sign a proposed memorandum of understanding, but have already agreed on the final terms of that document.
The current schedule envisions the start of construction on a campus that will initially house 500 to 1,000 students within about a year. The campus would grow to perhaps 6,000 students over the course of the next decade, offering lower-cost undergraduate degrees.
Mayor Evans said that some $100 million in donations and $450 million in additional long-term financing for the project remain solid.
Evans put the odds the deal with ASU will go through at 75 percent — several months ago, he said the odds were about 50/50.
“I believe ASU will make this happen — they are committed to it.”
ASU Vice President Stanley said, “Although this must seem frustratingly slow for the media and some in the public, this insures that our process moves forward smoothly.”
The plans for a 750-student campus within two years could provide a huge jolt for the Rim Country economy, with 70 to 100 full-time faculty and staff, and another 150 to 200 construction jobs.
Evans said even if the ASU deal falls apart unexpectedly in the next few months, backers have committed enough money to build a private college on the proposed site. Only about 20 percent of the promised donations depend on building an ASU campus. If the deal with ASU falls apart, Evans said the town could easily cut a deal with a private university using the existing pledges.
Evans said he’s been getting 5-10 calls a day from people seeking an update on the college.
“I don’t know if it’s the economy that’s creating the buzz, but the schedule is the schedule. Trying to push faster isn’t going to make it go any faster. We’re doing everything we can possibly do. I have sympathy for the economic mess that people find themselves in, but this is a major project that will literally change the nature of our economy — and we want to make sure it’s done right, even if it takes a little longer.”
The current plan calls for the town to form a Community Facilities District to buy the land and build the campus and the adjacent developments, then lease the facilities back to both ASU and private entities.
The town would generate all the money needed to develop the site and provide services from taxes within that district, bonds would be secured by land and facilities within the district and revenue from the university. If all goes as planned, the project would not require extra spending from existing taxes, but should generate a surge in sales taxes town-wide.
Planners and representatives from both ASU and the town will meet this week to refine the detailed timetable for the campus and set a date for the signing of the memorandum of understanding (MOU), which both sides have already agreed to.
That sets forth the terms for the final negotiations, which would result in signing a binding set of Intergovernmental Agreements (IGAs).
Originally, the town had hoped to sign an MOU with ASU in March, but the date for the signing kept slipping. Initially, ASU held back to find out whether voters would approve a temporary sales tax increase that averted maybe $100 million in cuts to the university budgets. Reportedly, the chief holdup in signing the MOU now is finding a time when principles from ASU and Payson can get together for a signing ceremony in Payson.
ASU said it expects 500 to 750 students to enroll for the first classes in the fall of 2012, likely lured in part by tuition that could be 50 percent lower than on ASU’s Tempe campus. Current plans call for a forested, energy-efficient campus with dorms, tuition pegged at the level of national Pell Grants and a few specialized programs — like green energy, rural healthcare, forest health and other key programs. Many classrooms would be wired to pipe in lectures from anywhere in the world and plans call for a wireless, high-speed internet connection that would allow students to connect from anywhere in town.
The campus and anticipated green energy projects would take up about half of the 150 acres, with the rest devoted to a conference center hotel, a research park and retail and commercial businesses.
The project still faces two potential threats.
First, to hit the current 2012 target, the Forest Service would have to move with unaccustomed speed in selling the town the 300 acres.
More than five years ago, Congress directed the Tonto National Forest Service to sell 300 acres surrounding the current Payson Ranger District headquarters fronting Highway 87 across from Gila Community College near the border between Payson and Star Valley.
Top officials at the Payson Ranger District have said previously that it could take several years to do all the necessary studies to clear the land for final sale.
Mayor Evans said that Forest Service officials at the regional and national level plus Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack have assured him that the land could be cleared for sale to a community facilities district established by the town quickly.
The current timeline depends on the town getting title to the 300 acres next spring. The Forest Service several years ago built new facilities on the land adjacent to the ranger station for its firefighting operations. Before doing that work, the Forest Service did the environmental studies that would be needed for the sale of the whole parcel, Evans said. As a result, Forest Service officials could make a ‘Categorical Exclusion’ and approve the sale quickly, he said.
Payson is currently in the process of buying a parcel of land near the airport it could trade with the Forest Service as part of the deal to buy the 300 acres for the campus. The Forest Service could then move its firefighting and maintenance operations to that site, which would provide major benefits in filling up air tankers, helicopters and water trucks. The town has already discussed arrangements that would enable to Forest Service to maintain a larger, public contact center at the current location, close to the entrance to the campus.
The second potential stumbling block lies with the Legislature. It could in theory refuse to fund any more enrollment growth for ASU — which has some 55,000 students at its three campuses in the Valley, making it by some counts the largest public university in the country.
However, the Legislature has offered no objection to several other, small-scale programs backed by all three of the state’s universities to open small, storefront programs in other communities — like Lake Havasu City.