Investors and donors have pledged $500 million to build a four-year college campus in Payson, representing a “watershed” in the year-long effort, according to Payson Mayor Kenny Evans.
A group of more than two dozen people representing billions in assets gathered two weeks ago to discuss the project, including representatives from Arizona State University.
A small core group worked out the structure for the financial deal this week at a subsequent meeting in Payson. The backers have completed financial deals and multi-billion dollar projects all across the country and around the globe.
“I would say that with the horsepower we have at the table now, we will have a campus, whether or not it’s ASU, which is our first preference. This pushes it into the ‘most probable’ category,” said Evans.
Out of the $500 million pledged, $35 million depends on making a deal with ASU.
Now, for the first time, the pledges provide enough money to build a campus, even if ASU decides not to go forward with the plan, due to threatened additional state budget cuts.
Evans said the commitments allow Payson to plan for a 6,000-student campus and to get all the necessary infrastructure in place, rather than starting small and hoping for the best.
“This is the end game, not the beginning game,” said Evans.
Evans said that the investors all “went back to their boards of directors and said we will commit to make this happen. The group does not need a dime of money from anyone else, and will use these pledges to make sure that we’ll have a positive cash flow in those early, startup years.”
The new pledges have cleared up the cloud that has hovered over the project since the death in a plane crash of developer Nazy Hirani, who had accounted for some $20 million of the $70 million that had at that point been pledged to buy the land and build the campus.
Meanwhile, the campus project got another boost this weekend in a meeting of high-powered local supporters .
That group hopes to set up a volunteer organization to lobby for the campus. The organizing meeting included retired administrators and fund-raisers from several major universities, who promised to help make the ASU campus here a reality.
Evans said support for the campus has reached a critical mass. “Early on, I was the driving force. Today, this project and its many supporters is driving me. I do not take credit for it. Call it fate; call it an alignment of the stars; a nexus of diverse forces, or whatever floats your boat! I give the credit to the good Lord and the many wonderful people here in Rim Country.”
The proposed campus would provide facilities for about 1,500 students initially on some 300 acres of Forest Service land where the Payson Ranger Station now sits. The campus would feature energy efficient buildings in a forested setting, offering basic undergraduate degrees and a few specialized advanced programs — like rural health care and “green” technologies, perhaps including a forest “restoration” industries focusing on making products with small trees.
The use of donations, innovative approaches to building the campus and a focus on degree programs that didn’t require expensive overhead would make it possible to charge perhaps 40 percent of the tuition at ASU’s other campuses. In effect, the rural campus would represent the start of a state college system.
But the campus will also offer an innovative learning environment based on the latest technology, wireless Internet and virtual classrooms — not only in the classrooms, but in the dorms and throughout town.
“We’re really talking about a new concept in higher education that will make learning and knowledge available on the student’s timetable —anywhere on campus, anywhere in town.”
The current plan calls for Payson to form a community facilities district, which would buy the land and build the campus and lease it to ASU. In addition, the community facilities district could form partnerships with private developers to build support facilities.
Evans said the investors proved eager to push forward with plans as quickly as possible.
Evans said that both the investors and representatives from Arizona State University who attended the session “ended up saying, ‘what can we do to speed up the timeline here?’ And I’m saying, ‘no, we’re going to do this in an orderly progression to make sure the college and the water come together in the right timeframe in the right way.’”
Blue Ridge water crucial
Evans said only the planned Blue Ridge pipeline will give the town enough water to provide for the 1,500- to 6,000-student campus and related developments like a research park, retail area and convention center.
The town hopes by December to finish an environmental impact statement on the 14-mile pipeline running along the East Verde River. Once the U.S. Forest Service approves that study and a pipeline route, the town can determine whether the 2014 or 2015 completion of the pipeline remains realistic.
Once the pipeline wins key Forest Service approvals, detailed planning and scheduling can proceed with the ASU campus.
The key threat to the project right now remains the upcoming statewide vote on a temporary one-cent increase in the sales tax, intended to reduce the state’s huge budget deficit. ASU officials have said that if the sales tax measure fails, they may have to make more than $100 million in additional, immediate cuts — which could delay any progress on the Payson campus.
However, the latest pledges will make it possible to find a new partner and still build a college campus, even if ASU pulls out of the plan.
About half of the gathered investors hope to play a role in building the campus and the support facilities, said Evans. The rest hope to donate to launch the state college approach on an innovative campus.
The current plan calls for dorms and classrooms nestled in among ponderosa pines, with high-tech hookups that could broadcast lectures from anywhere in the world and open up wireless Internet to the whole town.
“I would say the ASU folks were wildly impressed by the group,” said Evans.
“At the same time, we’re extremely cautious about the outcome of the (sales tax) vote on May 18, in part because (the ASU administrators’) jobs could become incredibly more difficult (if it fails). The amount of time and energy that they would have to devote to bringing together a brand new kind of campus would be much more difficult if Prop. 100 does not pass.”