Engineers Size Up New College Site

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Engineers and architects spent Monday tromping across a 60-acre parcel where Payson hopes to build the first phase of an Arizona State University campus.

Backers of an ASU campus in Payson have been scrambling to come up with a way to move forward on the campus, even if it takes the U.S. Forest Service an extra year to lumber through the bureaucratic hoops necessary to sell a 300-acre parcel designated as surplus by Congress nearly a decade ago.

Advocates for the campus hope that ASU will decide within the next two months to sign an intergovernmental agreement to build the campus, which would initially accommodate about 1,000 students, but eventually grow to 6,000.

Town officials had hoped the Forest Service could move quickly to sell a 300-acre parcel fronting Highway 260 that surrounds the current location of the Payson Ranger Station of the Tonto National Forest. However, the Forest Service proved frustratingly slow to act and has suggested that it will need to do more environmental studies on at least a portion of the land.

So several weeks ago, Payson set to work on an alternative plan to build facilities for the first 1,000 students on a piece of private land close to the Forest Service parcel. A group of investors who have pledged $400 million in low-cost loans to build the campus, signed a deal to buy the 60-acre parcel, to make sure the project can proceed as soon as ASU gives the go-ahead.

Payson Mayor Kenny Evans on Monday said that a team of engineers and experts on solar power systems inspected the new site to begin adapting existing plans and layouts to the new configuration.

“We had a team evaluating the site to adapt the plans we’d already developed,” to the new topography, said Evans. He said the new site could accommodate classrooms and administrative buildings and some of the dorms necessary for 1,000 to 2,000 students.

The town will still need the bulk of the nearby 300-acre Forest Service site to complete the project. That would include a large conference hotel, a research park including a solar cell assembly plant and other ancillary uses.

The slow progress on acquiring the Forest Service site complicated the two-year struggle to win approval of the project. Payson hopes to establish a special district that would own the land and the buildings, which it would lease to the hotel, research park and university. The district could levy taxes on the land in the project boundaries, buy, build and lease, which would in theory insulate taxpayers in the rest of the town from any financial impact from the project.

The district would use revenue from the extra facilities to reduce costs for the university. This would allow the district to build the campus and lease it to ASU at a rate low enough to ensure it would cost perhaps half as much to educate a student in Payson as on ASU’s Tempe Campus.

But if the development of the Forest Service site lags a year behind the development of the first set of classrooms, that could complicate the project.

Fortunately, private donors have pledged $100 million in gifts, in addition to the $400 million in low-cost financing, said Evans. As a result, the gifts could help keep the cost to ASU low as the other businesses develop.

The scramble to adjust to the Forest Service timetable represents the latest improvisation in a complex, suspenseful effort to bring off the project, which amounts to building the first campus in a state college system.

The ongoing state budget meltdown has posed additional challenges. Reductions in state support in the past two years have forced the universities to double their tuition and slash staffing. Gov. Jan Brewer has proposed an additional 20 percent cut in state support for the universities in 2012.

However, she has also called on the state to develop lower-cost colleges that focus on undergraduate education — precisely the kind of campus that Payson has proposed.

Moreover, in December, the Arizona Board of Regents concluded the state must develop a network of such campuses to meet a projected demand for a roughly 50 percent increase in the number of bachelor’s degrees granted in the next 20 years.

Evans said the timing of the financial crisis facing the universities may ultimately work in Payson’s favor.

“I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy,” he said of the financial struggles of the universities “but it is offering them an alternative,” since the plan for a lower-cost college campus here is ready to go.

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