Arizona State University will not go to the Arizona Board of Regents for approval to build a new campus in Payson until February, the result of last-minute questions raised by the Gila Community College board.
ASU had planned to seek approval from the Board of Regents at its quarterly meeting last week, but decided to wait until the Rim Country Educational Alliance actually obtains a 22-acre parcel on which it wants to build the first, 1,000-student phase of the campus.
Gila County was poised to transfer the land to the Alliance several weeks ago, but held off after the GCC board asked the county to impose a series of conditions.
In an appearance last week before the Payson Tea Party, GCC board member Tom Loeffler said the GCC board supports building a university here, but didn’t want to end up with industrial development next to its campus.
Moreover, he suggested that the 34 acres Gila County recently gave the community college district doesn’t offer the campus enough room to grow to a potential enrollment of 5,000 to 6,000 students.
“We are not opposed to a four-year college, it would have a lot of benefits,” said Loeffler. However, he said a master plan drawn up for the ultimate growth of the community college envisioned a 38-acre campus.
“So we would have 5,000 students on 32 acres and the SLE would have 22 acres for 1,000 students,” said Loeffler.
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans said he tried to convince ASU to go ahead with a presentation to the Regents last week, but officials convinced him too many uncertainties about the land sale remained.
“Our inability to hit the timelines required to get before the Board of Regents last week has not been a function of not trying. I support the right of Mr. Loeffler and others to ask questions. We have done our best to answer them. I disagree with those who think we are trying to push the project too fast or who quizzically ask: ‘What’s the hurry?’ On a personal level, it does not matter to me. Unfortunately, I see and hear from unemployed or underemployed fathers and mothers or anxiety-filled teenagers or harried business owners who do feel incredible pressure to just hang on until this difficult recession ends.”
The delay represents one more frustrating setback in the three-year saga.
The Alliance originally wanted to build the campus on a 260-acre Forest Service parcel south of the highway. However, the Forest Service warned the Alliance it could take another year to finalize a sale of that land, although Congress authorized sale of the land nearly a decade ago.
So the Alliance shifted plans for the first phase of the campus first to a 67-acre private parcel north of the highway and fronting on Tyler Parkway and then to a 54-acre county-owned parcel.
The Forest Service originally gave the 54-acre parcel between Mud Springs Road and Tyler Parkway north of Highway 260 to the statewide community college board for educational purposes. However, the state Legislature dissolved the community college board before it could take title to the land, so Gila County took ownership on behalf of the still unformed Gila Community College District.
Last month, Gila County used a quitclaim deed to give Gila Community College 32 acres, including the five-acre parcel on which the community college campus now stands.
The county had intended to use the same method to transfer the remaining 22 acres to the Alliance.
The Alliance only needs 10 acres for the 1,000-student first phase of the campus, including classrooms and dorms. The Alliance wanted land right next to the 34-acre GCC parcel because of the highway configuration. Plans for the university include a roundabout highway entrance at the beginning of a road cut as the highway heads down the hill.
The road cut would then provide the perfect place for a pedestrian bridge connecting phase one classes with the rest of the campus on Forest Service land across the highway.
However, Loeffler in his Tea Party speech suggested that GCC might need an extra five acres or so shaved off the western end of the parcel. In that case, the two campuses might share an entrance at the proposed roundabout.
Evans expressed disappointment about the delay, but said the Alliance still hopes to meet a schedule that would welcome the first students in the fall of 2013.
“Many have shared that this effort to bring a university to Payson is the glimmer of hope that keeps them going. Timeliness is important to them. I realize that for some, the six months since formal discussions with GCC and the county began, are only a small step in the grand scheme. Unfortunately, our inability to answer every conceivable concern or deal with every theoretical question has caused us to miss a significant timeline with the Regents on our MS Project schedule. The SLE and the volunteer committees are functioning well and we will continue to press on. We remain cautiously optimistic that we will be able to make up for the lost time.”
The GCC board had also raised fundamental questions about the Alliance’s plans for the 22-acre parcel, especially plans to include commercial or light industrial uses.
The Alliance has said it wants 10 acres for the campus, but would use the rest of the parcel in combination with 67 acres of private land for spin-off uses. That could include a research park and an incubator center, where concepts developed by university researchers would be turned into products. A chunk of the 22 acres also lies on a steep slope that would make it virtually unbuildable.
The Alliance had offered to just buy the 10 acres it needs at the west end of the parcel, but that would have left GCC with a piece of land disconnected from its main campus. The Alliance also asked its designers to draw up a plan that would ensure GCC could fit a 5,000-student campus onto the 32 acres it now owns, said Evans.
However, the GCC board not only suggested the county sell roughly 15 acres instead of 22 acres, but also objected to any “non-educational” use of the land.
If that description applies to the spin-off uses the Alliance hoped to spawn to help keep the cost of the campus low, then roughly 12 of the 22 acres would prove all but useless to the Alliance.
The GCC board also wanted the county to include a provision that would give GCC first right of refusal if the Alliance ever sold off any of the land.
Evans said the Alliance had offered a provision that would ensure the land reverted to GCC should the Alliance not need it.
Finally, the GCC board questioned the $500,000 appraised value of the 22 acres. The Alliance and the county have already all but settled on a new appraisal of $600,000, largely because Payson’s sale to the Alliance of one-acre in the middle of the parcel increased the value of the county’s land.
Former Payson Mayor Bob Edwards also attended the Tea Party meeting and asked a series of questions about the GCC board’s position on the land sale.
“You said the 54 acres was for educational purposes only,” said Edwards, referring to the conditions on the county’s ultimate use of the land it received through the state from the U.S. Forest Service.
“Our board asked to restrict the deed” in the sale, said Loeffler.
“Was not that already in the code” as part of the original land transfer, asked Edwards.
“It was not restricted. The state gave the land to the county in a quitclaim deed. That’s why the (GCC) governing board asked to restrict the deed.”
Loeffler urged his audience to contact the board of supervisors to support the GCC board’s concerns about the land transfer.
“I encourage you to contact your supervisors. That’s our last resort to try to get this thing straightened out,” he said.
Meanwhile, Evans said he’s hoping that the additional two-month delay won’t unhinge the already tightly lagging schedule for getting the campus open in the fall of 2013.
He said the Alliance and ASU have settled all the major questions about the facilities for phase one and the relative financial contributions. Essentially, the contracts would give ASU a free campus for the first 1,000 students, in return for a commitment to pay a not-yet-negotiated lease payment for the campus south of the highway for the next 5,000 students.