Donors Rally Behind Asu Campus Plan

Death of major backer cast a shadow over negotiations, but new backers have stepped forward

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Down. But not out.

Initially, the tragic death on March 12 of real estate magnate Nazy Hirani seemed to have delivered a body blow to plans to bring an ASU campus to Payson.

But this week, fresh supporters have rallied around the plan, said Payson Mayor Kenny Evans.

Hirani, the owner of the Bashas’ shopping plaza, had played a crucial role in assembling pledges totaling some $70 million, which made the ambitious plan possible.

Evans said Hirani’s death sent shock waves throughout the town’s tight-knit business community. Hirani served as a tireless promoter for the region and, even in the depth of the recession, invested $1 million in upgrades to the shopping plaza. He pulled together many of the investors who had pledged enough money to build a four-year campus on 300 acres of Forest Service-owned land just off Highway 260.

“He was the connection,” said Evans. “He had the people — he knew people who were enthused about the same kinds of things that we were enthused about. He was the kingpin. He was the king maker.”

But he died when his vintage P-51 Mustang clipped a hangar and crashed during a landing attempt at the Chandler Airport.

Evans said that he had leaned heavily on Hirani to line up pledges to support the campus. All told, investors enlisted by Hirani had pledged $22.5 million out of the $70-million total.

Since Hirani’s death, several major investors and donors have stepped forward.

“We’ve had a couple of Nazy’s really good friends step up and make contact. They seem very, very interested in picking up from where Nazy left off. I feel better about that today than I have since the memorial service,” said Evans, who was himself out of commission last week after a bout of food poisoning.

“We’re talking about several billionaires who are very good friends with Nazy who said, ‘if this is a project that Nazy thought was important, we’re going to pick up the gauntlet and make sure it goes forward.’”

Meanwhile, negotiations with ASU are continuing, said Evans.

“The average person thinks you just sign a piece of paper and it’s done. They don’t understand the magnitude of what we’re doing and that it’s so different from what we’re doing anywhere else.”

Meanwhile, the Arizona Board of Regents has also signed a memorandum of understanding with the Lake Havasu Foundation for Higher Education aimed at offering undergraduate degrees there starting in 2011.

The agreement envisions offering classes in a converted, existing building. The preliminary agreement resembles the goal for a Payson campus — a limited number of B.A. degrees focused on popular areas like business and education, all at a much lower cost than getting a degree on ASU’s main campus in Tempe.

Lake Havasu City Mayor Mark Nexsen called it the biggest economic development project in the town’s history.

Evans said the proposed Lake Havasu campus would not hamper Payson’s plans at all and would operate on an different scale.

“I appreciate what they’re doing,” said Evans. “But what we’re proposing to do has nothing to do with what they’re doing. They have some empty big box stores and have a group of people who have raised $30,000 and are trying to bring ASU to town.

“If that was the goal,” he continued, “we could have done that in half an hour — we didn’t need two years. What we’re talking about is creating a first-class, new-millennium campus. So I wish them well — nothing would make me happier than seeing them succeed over there, but that has nothing to do with us.”

He said the town’s agreement to continue exclusive negotiations with ASU on establishing a campus applies only to central Arizona — from the boundaries of Gila County and over to the New Mexico border.

The two sides continue to work on the details of a campus that would occupy perhaps half of a 300-acre parcel, with space for dorms, classrooms and support facilities in a forested setting. The town would establish a community facilities district to buy the land with donated money, then work with developers to build the campus to ASU’s specifications. ASU would lease the campus from the community facilities district, which would repay the builders from those funds and from bonds.

In addition, the community facilities district could develop and lease the rest of the site to private businesses — perhaps a convention hotel or a research office and industrial park associated with the university.

The continued deterioration of the state budget continues to complicate negotiations.

Evans said ASU has been asked to prepare for another 12 percent budget reduction, on top of the deep cuts of the past year.

“They’re just beside themselves,” he said of the hard-pressed administrators. “They’re feeling like — ‘what more can we do?’”

ASU has imposed steep tuition surcharges this year that shifted the university from the lower third in tuition for public universities to one of the more expensive. Ironically, that might in the end work to the advantage of Payson’s plan, which envisions a campus with tuition perhaps 50 percent lower than the tuition levels on the Tempe campus.

Talks continue despite the budget traumas, said Evans. “It is in fact amazing we can continue to make progress,” he said.

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