Arizona State University and Payson Tuesday announced publicly they’ve signed a “memorandum of understanding” (MOU) to “examine and analyze” all the elements needed to build a four-year campus here.
“We look forward to working with the city in this planning effort,” said ASU Senior Vice President Richard Stanley. “The city has shown leadership and vision in undertaking this initiative.”
“Raising $500 million is a tough task in today’s economic climate. The vision, foresight and courage of President Crow and the Board of Regents inspired Payson’s educational dream team to go the extra mile to make this dream come true,” said Payson Mayor Kenny Evans.
The official press release said the possible Payson campus “is in support of the Arizona Board of Regent’s goal to provide a wide range of educational opportunities in Arizona through differentiated learning environments, geographical choices in where to attend college and different cost structure.”
The official word confirmed the rumors that swirled through town all week, but didn’t provide key additional details — like a timeline for the next few crucial steps.
The MOU represents a “major step forward” and essentially sets out the key tasks for both ASU and for Payson necessary to get to the next step — signing intergovernmental agreements to actually build the campus and offer a select number of bachelor’s degrees.
ASU has been struggling to accommodate enrollment demand despite the severe budget problems caused by the state budget meltdown.
The Payson campus has been stalled by the complexity and scale of the proposed campus, which would be built from scratch with a combination of donations and pledges from investors. In the meantime, ASU has been working on agreements to offer low-cost, four-year degrees in what amount to storefront operations in several communities, like Lake Havasu City. However, ASU and Payson have agreed to negotiate only with one another about building a campus in central Arizona.
The Board of Regents last week adopted a statewide plan to “realign the Arizona University System into a more effective and efficient enterprise model.”
The board’s annual retreat focused on a “Strategic Realignment 2010 Forward” plan to increase efficiency, provide “low-cost options” for students, better ways to measure outcomes and efficiency and more “privatization plans and partnerships.”
The Payson campus would seem to fit into that broader picture, with private investors and donors putting up the money to build a campus for 1,500 to 6,000 students.
The MOU between Payson and ASU makes it clear that Payson will finance and build the campus and that ASU will provide the students, hire the faculty and staff and then lease the buildings from Payson.
The town will create a community facilities district (CFD), which will buy the land, hire the contractors and lease the facilities to both ASU and a variety of businesses — like a convention hotel. Reportedly, the town is already near a deal with a hotel chain to build a hotel that could host educational conferences.
“From cottage dorms to a wireless communitywide learning experience, this campus holds the potential to be truly cutting edge,” said Evans. “We believe Payson offers an ideal living and learning environment that will attract students and faculty from a wide area.”
The MOU requires ASU to come up with an estimate on how many students the campus could enroll, together with a marketing and demographics studies, plus a detailed academic plan. Preliminary discussions have focused on offering a limited number of four-year degrees that don’t require expensive labs and infrastructure — like engineering and biology and genetics. The campus would likely also focus on a few key areas, like rural health care, sustainable design and perhaps green technologies or restoration forestry.
The press release this morning said Payson hopes to build the first LEED Platinum/ BREEAM campus — certifications focused on green and sustainable design and architecture established by the U.S. Green Building Council.
The release said “Payson seeks to create a more vibrant and diverse economic base on which to build its future prosperity. Payson has committed to providing the campus facilities needed for ASU to create high-quality academic programs that would be supported by a mix of tuition and new, but to-be identified state funding.”
Current plans call for tuition at the new campus to cost about one-third less than ASU’s current tuition of $9,000 annually — an amount that has increased rapidly in the past several years.
This year for the first time, ASU had to limit admission of qualified high school students, due to the budget cuts it has suffered and the overflow crowding of students on its three Valley campuses. ASU now has some 55,000 students, making it one of the biggest public universities in the country. Unlike most states, Arizona has only a handful of small private colleges to complement the three large, crowded public universities.
The press release did not include remarks from ASU President Michael Crow or any members of the ASU Board of Regents, maintaining ASU’s relatively low-key public involvement in the discussion of the plans for the ASU campus.
The release also didn’t lay out a timetable, although town officials have previously said they thought the campus could open in the fall of 2012 or the fall of 2013, if all goes well.
The press release did say that ASU would merge its Payson campus planning committee with a planning group set up by Payson. It was Payson’s planning group that developed an extremely detailed planning timeline that suggested a fall of 2012 opening was at least possible.
“The planning committee will tackle the design implications for what will emerge as ASU’s teaching model and curriculum for the campus programs, the general layout of the college and its associated facilities, the infrastructure development requirements on- and off-site, the fiscal and physical challenges for the various proposed components and the feasibility modeling that will be required to produce the world-class learning center that was envisioned at the start of discussions over two years ago.”
The legal complications of the use of a CFD reportedly held up the signing of the MOU for several months, as the lawyers debated the fine points. Town negotiators wanted the intergovernmental agreements to involve ASU and the newly created district to be sure Payson’s existing taxpayers wouldn’t be liable if the whole deal eventually falls apart. The town council would form the board of directors for the CFD, which would have the power to sign contracts, buy land, lease land and levy sales and property taxes on developments build on the 300 acres.
Current plans call for a 150-acre campus built on a 300-acre tract of Forest Service land that could accommodate a “green energy” campus nestled in among the pine trees. The rest of the land would serve as the site for the hotel, perhaps some retail outlets and a research/industrial park and other support facilities.
Payson is also pushing to convince the Forest Service to quickly free up the land for sale to the community facilities district, which doesn’t actually yet exist legally. Normally, it takes the Forest Service years to do all the environmental studies needed to free up land for sale, but Congress earmarked the land for sale more than five years ago and the Forest Service already did key studies before building its ranger station and firefighting facilities on the site. Reportedly, the town has offered to swap the Tonto National Forest another piece of land near the airport for its firefighting operations.