Arizona State University could make its decision on whether to build a Payson campus in about a month, as soon as it finishes its marketing study, said one top ASU official this week.
Richard Stanley, ASU vice president, said the university has already started work on the survey to determine how many students might want to attend a low-cost Payson campus.
“That’s the next important step from the university’s point of view and we’ll have that in less than a month,” said Stanley in one of the most definitive and optimistic statements he’s made about the campus in the long, two-year struggle to win a commitment from ASU.
Meanwhile, Payson and the financial backers who have pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to build a high-tech, energy-efficient campus have abandoned efforts to buy six parcels of land south of Highway 260 adjacent to a key Forest Service parcel and finalized plans to buy 80 acres north of the highway adjacent to Gila Community College.
Backers of the land purchase moved to acquire the private land to make sure they can build the 1,000-student first phase of the campus, despite delays in convincing the U.S. Forest Service to sell its 300-acre parcel, earmarked by Congress for sale nearly a decade ago.
“The strategy that (Payson) Mayor (Kenny) Evans is pursuing with alternatives to the Forest Service land is something he decided to do to make sure the Forest Service is not an impediment. We’re happy he’s got alternatives in mind,” said Stanley.
Payson still hopes to buy most of the 300-acre Forest Service parcel, but the leisurely pace of that agency in clearing the land for sale prompted Evans to develop a backup plan.
Advocates for the campus had initially hoped to buy six parcels to the south of the highway right next to the Forest Service parcel, but those plans ran afoul by an out-of-state bank’s refusal to sell a property seized in a bankruptcy.
In the long run, campus designers may face complications connecting the classrooms and dorms built in the first phase on the 80-acre parcel north of the highway to the later phases built to the south of the highway.
However, putting the first phase right next to Gila Community College could also offer added, low-cost options for students seeking a degree, town officials said.
The state’s three public universities have all worked to establish partnerships with community colleges, so students can complete their first two years of study at low community college rates, then transfer all those units to a university to complete their degree.
The Arizona Board of Regents this week said some 11,000 students are currently enrolled in community college partnerships, online degree programs and extended campus sites, which cuts their tuition bills by about 50 percent.
Last week, Arizona State University also announced progress in its negotiations with Lake Havasu City to build a four-year campus there in a shuttered middle school.
ASU and that town announced they will sign an intergovernmental agreement to build a campus there as soon as local backers raise $2 million, plus enough money to convert the closed middle school campus into a university campus, according to sources close to the negotiations.
That puts the negotiations in Lake Havasu a little behind the talks in Payson, since Rim Country investors have already pledged enough money to build the campus, a hotel, an industrial park and other support facilities.
After years of struggle and uncertainty, circumstances finally seem to be lining up behind the seeming pipe dream of a Payson campus.
First, Gov. Jan Brewer and the Arizona Board of Regents have made a big expansion in lower-cost college degrees a top priority.
Based on projections of the state’s population growth, the Regents have announced an ambitious plan to double the number of bachelor’s degrees available in the state by 2020 — with a special emphasis on providing low-cost degrees.
That goal has seemed especially daunting as big reductions in state support in the past three years has prompted the universities to double tuition to nearly $9,000 annually.
As a result, university officials are scrambling for a way to quickly fashion what amounts to a state college system.
“Arizona is unique in that it has three prestigious research-oriented universities and a first- rate community college system, but no state college system that typically offers degrees at a price point in between the former two,” said Arizona Board of Regents Vice Chairman Fred Duvall.
The universities have worked on building up many joint degree programs with the community colleges as a first step in that direction.
“We are creating a system akin to a state college system where students will have a multitude of degree options at a wide variety of price points to suit their needs.
“Now more than ever before students can seamlessly transfer from a community college into a university.”
The Payson campus offers another clear step in that direction.
Payson has proposed establishing a special taxing district, which would buy the land then build the campus and assorted support facilities, like a industrial research park, a 400-room convention hotel, solar energy and geothermal energy power generators and other facilities. The district would then lease the facilities to the university and all the businesses, using the revenue to reduce the cost for ASU so it could afford to charge about half the normal tuition.
The plan has been repeatedly buffeted by uncertainty in the past year, mostly as a result of the steadily worsening state budget crisis. Gov. Brewer has proposed another $80 million cut in state support for the universities in the upcoming fiscal year — a 19 percent reduction on top of hundreds of millions of dollars in reductions in the past two years.
However, the federal government last week also signaled that it will not block Arizona’s efforts to cut some 250,000 adults off from the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System.
That may prove disastrous for many people losing their medical care, but removes a cloud of uncertainty from the budget and reduces the chance of additional deep cuts in the university budgets.
Stanley said ASU still faces grave financial problems, but that he doesn’t think the current budget problems will prevent the Payson project from moving forward.
The university this year is losing both state support and federal stimulus grants, but has 2,000 more students.
“Application numbers and yield numbers are very, very strong for next year,” said Stanley. “The downturn has not deterred people from going to college.”
As a result, said Stanley, the ongoing marketing survey represents the last major hurdle for the Payson campus.
A similar marketing survey in Lake Havasu City predicted that campus will build to at least 1,000 students in its first four years, said Stanley.
ASU officials have said previously they could move forward with the Payson campus if the marketing study showed that at least 500 students would likely enroll for the first classes — in the fall of 2013 or the spring of 2014.
Mayor Evans has said he hopes for a first phase that would accommodate 1,000 to 2,000 students. Ultimately, the campus would grow to 6,000 students, according to the plans.
Stanley said the state budget crisis and the urgent need to accommodate continued enrollment growth are now working in favor of the idea of a Payson campus.
“Absolutely. It is only going to accelerate the trend.”
He said the marketing study will help the university determine what degree programs to offer at a Payson campus.
In initial discussions, backers have talked about a focus on green technologies, rural health care, sustainable forestry, nursing and a selection of bachelor’s degrees that don’t need expensive infrastructure or the support of well-developed graduate programs.