The world’s largest maker of solar cells will likely serve as the anchor tenant for a research park next door to the proposed Arizona State University campus in Payson, Mayor Kenny Evans said Thursday in a wide-ranging discussion of the proposed four-year campus before the Citizens Awareness Council.
Moreover, Evans said Payson is nearing a deal with the Forest Service to buy 300 acres for the campus. The deal with the Forest Service would also involve moving firefighting operations to a 13-acre parcel near the airport and building a new, two-story ranger station and visitor’s center on the highway.
“The discussions are moving along right now, as you would guess if you saw all the people running in and out of town hall,” said Evans, “there is no slowdown at all. We’ve got an anchor tenant that’s going to blow your socks off,” he said.
Town officials have reportedly had repeated meetings with Chinese officials that run the world’s largest solar cell manufacturer. The Chinese delegation has visited the town, relying in part on Tourism and Recreation Director Cameron Davis’ fluent Mandarin for translation. The Chinese were reportedly so taken with the area that they spent some time house hunting.
If they agree to serve as the anchor tenant for a proposed research park, the plant would assemble components manufactured in China. The plant would likely provide 50 jobs initially and perhaps build up to several hundred.
Evans also dropped a broad hint to confirm rumors that Australian-based Outback Steakhouse will soon announce plans to open a new restaurant to replace the long-vacant Chinese eatery at the corner of Highways 260 and 87.
Asked to reveal the rumored tenant Evans promised “you’ll be very happy,” then added with a grin “I don’t speak Australian.”
Evans said town officials have talked to perhaps 200 businesses about relocating to Payson and perhaps 19 are seriously considering a move.
A target ammunition manufacturer that set up shop at the airport a year ago has already grown into the third largest manufacturer of target ammo in the nation. Evans said two other manufacturing firms have nearly reached final agreement on setting up facilities here.
The nearly two-hour session marked a tour de force for Evans, who provided the most detailed public account yet to some 35 community leaders and activists.
By the end of the session, Evans appeared to have won over even some long-time skeptics and critics of the idea of a university campus in town.
Evans said the proposed campus for 1,500 to 6,000 students will provide an economic cornerstone in rebuilding the town’s economy to avoid an over dependence on construction and spending by retirees and tourists that “has cost us dearly” in the two-year downturn.
Stabilizing the Rim economy
He said the college, research park, and conference hotel will all help stabilize the region’s vulnerable, boom-bust economy and provide a cutting edge education — at perhaps half the tuition charged at ASU’s Tempe campus.
He has previously said the town is close to a deal with a national hotel chain that would increase the number of rooms in town by nearly 40 percent and guarantee tax revenues of a million dollars annually, which would help reduce the cost of the ASU campus.
The town has two manufacturing firms now and two more on the way.
“All the projects we’re working on match the town’s resources to their resource needs. We’re not so much focusing on manufacturing as on assembling. Blow the smoke in someone else’s town then come and assemble the pieces here,” he said.
Land sale progressing
The most immediate issue lies in convincing the U.S. Forest Service to quickly sell the town the 300 acres needed for the campus.
Evans said it took 13 years and cost nearly $13 million to win the approval of the last major Forest Service land trade in town, this one involving some 220 acres near the airport.
However, he predicted that this land sale will take place in a matter of months, not years. Partly, that’s because Congress designated the land for sale to a public entity nearly a decade ago.
That means the Forest Service could sell the land to the town based on a value set by independent appraisers, rather than competitive bidding or sale on the open market. Moreover, environmental work done on the parcel when the Forest Service built its own facilities there means it could be freed for sale without a formal environmental impact statement, which could otherwise delay the process by up to three years.
The parcel in question is bounded roughly on the west by Mud Springs Road, on the north by Highway 260, on the east by Rim Parkway and on the south by Miller Road. As Evans spoke, photos of the thickly forested parcel with its towering trees, granite rock formations and scenic overlooks played on his laptop.
The current proposal would exclude from the sale a 15-acre parcel where the Forest Service has done maintenance on its vehicles and fire trucks, to avoid a delay forced by a study on whether oil and gasoline spills have created a pollution problem.
Three independent appraisals would set the value of the remaining land. The town would deduct from that amount the money needed to build for the Forest Service new firefighting maintenance and training facilities on a 13-acre parcel near the water tank on the ridge by the airport overlooking town.
In addition, the town would deduct from the eventual payment for the land the cost of building a new, two-story ranger station and visitor’s center near the existing parking lot.
The town would cover the rest of the land cost with a combination of private donations totaling some $100 million and a pledge of additional financing of some $400 million.
Evans took pains to praise the Tonto National Forest officials who have been negotiating with the town to free up the land for sale.
“The process is moving along very well,” he said. “They are very responsive.”