The dwindling opposition to an ASU campus in town comes down to this: Will a bunch of drunk frat boys move in next door?
At least, that represented the only area of concern expressed repeatedly last week during Payson Mayor Kenny Evans’ discussion of the plans for the college before the Citizen’s Awareness Committee.
Of course, frat parties represent just one of the town council’s worries about the campus, which will have a big impact on police, fire, water and sewer services if Payson strikes a final deal with ASU sometime in the next year.
Evans predicted the campus will start out with 1,000 to 2,000 students in perhaps 2013 or 2014, but ultimately grow to a maximum of about 6,000 students.
The campus will include lots of dorm space, with the units built and operated by a separate private partnership on the campus.
Evans said the experience of other universities suggests that at most two-thirds of those students will live on campus. That means that a town that now has a population of about 16,000 would have to find enough off-campus housing for about 2,000 students.
Some of the listeners struggled to absorb the implications.
One fellow worried that the students will be just like he was when he hit college. “How can we prevent students from moving into these residential neighborhoods.”
“They’ll infiltrate the whole town,” said another.
Evans said the prospect of attracting thousands of students, hundreds of university workers and hundreds of other workers to the hotel and research park will pose a major challenge for the town in providing infrastructure.
“So, how many of you had to work your way through college?” asked Evans.
About three quarters of the mostly retired folks in the audience raised their hands.
“So what will we need when ASU gets here? Lots more jobs, which we don’t have right now,” said Evans.
He said he didn’t think that the Payson campus will attract a party crowd.
“If you get a ‘party’ student to come and take a look around Payson, what are they going to see,” said Evans, laughing. As a result, students looking for hard-partying fraternities and a lots of night life in the community will probably not want to enroll at a Payson campus.
However, he said the campus will create a major need for affordable housing — both in Payson and in surrounding communities like Star Valley.
He said “three or four” major builders of low-cost housing have already contacted the town about plans to add perhaps “70 to 170” homes to the housing stock. The homes would be assembled on site from pre-built components and then sell for maybe $115,000 to $135,000. Such assembled homes can be built for perhaps $70 a square foot instead of the $250 a square foot cost of a conventional stick-built home.
“Right now, they want to build more than the town can absorb,” but such an approach will ultimately provide the “affordable” housing the town will need to accommodate growth the college will trigger.
Evans said the town council has been working through a list of issues, with an eye on the possibility that the campus will become a reality.
For instance, the town recently overhauled the rules for “accessory dwelling units” or granny flats — the kind of detached guest house that might be rented to a college student.
The town also recently overhauled the noise ordinance, which would give neighbors and police additional tools to crack down on a loud party in a residential neighborhood.
Moreover, Payson is stretching now to build a third fire station close to the proposed campus location with leftover bond funds, despite concerns about finding enough money to pay the staffing costs. The town hopes federal grants will cover the cost of staffing in the several years before the arrival of ASU, and that its spinoff businesses might create a surge in town revenues after that.
The negotiations with ASU and the other spin-off businesses have also focused on the need to provide major upgrades in water, sewer and other infrastructure.
For instance, the campus would pay about $6 million in water impact fees. That money would go to help pay the costs of the Blue Ridge pipeline. If the town strikes a deal in the next six months to a year, that water impact fee could make it unnecessary for the town council to follow through on a recently approved 10-percent increase in water rates.
He predicted that the college will start classes just as the Blue Ridge water arrives in town in either late 2013 or 2014.
Evans said the cost of the Blue Ridge pipeline will likely be $50 million. The town has already spent or committed about $20 million, which includes a $10-million federal stimulus grant. That leaves about $30 million left to finance, probably through low-interest, long-term federal loans. The town has spent about $5 million of $15 million in accumulated reserves from impact fees during the boom years. Worried at how quickly that reserve was melting away, the council imposed a roughly 10-percent water rate increase this year and approved another roughly 10-percent increase to take effect next year.
In truth, the town could never have even started talks with ASU without the knowledge that the Blue Ridge water is effectively on its way. Payson’s contract with the Salt River Project gives it the right to a rolling 10-year average of 3,000 acre-feet annually, which will more than double the town’s water supply. Baring the return of a severe and prolonged drought more serious than even the dry spell of the past decade, the Blue Ridge water will provide enough water to avoid drawing down its wells even after the town reaches a planned build-out population of 40,000.
The $6 million in impact fees from the campus could pay down a big chunk of the remaining cost of the pipeline, making the water rate increase unnecessary and reducing the amount of money the town will have to borrow to complete the project.
In addition, the campus would result in a $5-million payment to the Northern Gila County Sanitary District, to provide new trunk lines and increase the capacity of the existing sewage treatment plant.
Initially, town officials hoped that those impact fees could perhaps underwrite a new sewage treatment plant in or near Star Valley, which would give that town the start on a sewage system to replace the heavy reliance on septic tanks — which pose a danger of groundwater contamination in a town that relies almost exclusively on shallow wells for its drinking water.
Evans said a new plant would cost about twice as much as upgrading the existing plant, so planners have largely set that option aside for now.
“It would cost about $10 million to upgrade and about $25 million to build a new plant,” said Evans. “I was really hoping we could build a new plant and solve some problems for Star Valley, but it just didn’t pencil out.”