A long meeting with top Forest Service officials has produced a “breakthrough” in Payson’s effort to buy a 300-acre tract of land for a college campus here from the U.S. Forest Service.
Payson now believes it can finish the purchase by next spring, said Payson Mayor Kenny Evans.
However, the town will still probably use an already-purchased 67-acre parcel on the other side of the highway adjacent to Gila Community College for phase one of the proposed campus, expected to open for business in the fall of 2013.
“We’re working feverishly now,” said Evans of the campus planning efforts. “We’re working around the clock trying to figure out how to move this thing forward — but we’re still locked into starting at least phase one at the north site.”
The nuts-and-bolts meeting included the Tonto National Forest Supervisor Gene Blankenbaker and Regional Lands Director Rod Byers, now based in Albuquerque but formerly based in Payson.
The meeting revealed several shortcuts that gave Evans hope the land purchased can be completed in one year instead of two.
“We were able to sit around the table and talk about how can we move this forward,” said Evans. “We had the entire regional office here and the local office here all in the same room at the same time. Instead of someone raising a problem and having it go back to Albuquerque and back to Phoenix six times, we were around the same table — saying ‘yeah, we can do that’ or ‘no, we can’t do that — but we can do this.’”
The progress on purchasing the Forest Service land prompted another frantic reassessment of the building plan, since the town had just shifted to concentrate on putting the classrooms and dorms for the first phase of the campus on the 67-acre parcel next to GCC to the north of Highway 260.
However, due to the need to lay in electrical lines, water lines and sewer lines for the area south of the highway, the planners concluded they could only hit the 2013 target date by going ahead with phase one north of the highway.
The planners this week sent a new plan for the placement of buildings, classrooms and dorms on the parcel north of the highway for approval.
“The meter’s running at high speed now,” Evans said.
“I just wish we could put a shovel in the ground and start building — but as they say, the devil’s in the details.”
Evans said he’s confident that ASU and Payson will sign an intergovernmental agreement to build the campus soon.
“They’re spending a lot of money and we’re spending a lot of money — and neither side would be doing that if there wasn’t a reasonable expectation that we’ll be going forward,” said Evans.
He noted that in the end the project will benefit from having the extra parcel.
The original estimates indicated that the classrooms and support facilities would require about 70 acres of the 300-acre Forest Service parcel.
But dorms, administrative buildings and parking lots would consume another big chunk of that parcel. In addition, planners needed to find room for a 500-room convention hotel and research park, with one Chinese solar cell assembly operation already in the wings for a slot in that park.
Planners hired an architectural firm that had worked with ASU on other projects for years to come up with a three-dimensional rendering of the campus.
“They were looking at a million square feet of buildings and almost a million square feet of parking. That was an incredible number that I hadn’t really thought about. So they created these little models and plopped it down on the map and said this is what it will look like. All of us kind of gasped. It became very visually clear that we were needing more acreage — so I think we’ll really end up needing that acreage on the north side.”
Fortunately, the last meeting with the top Forest Service officials also helped whittle away how much of the 300 acres the agency will want to keep to maintain its public contact ranger station at that heavily trafficked location.
The Forest Service and the town continue to work out the details of including in the deal a parcel of town-owned land near the airport to which the Forest Service can move its fire fighting facilities.