Gov. Jan Brewer this week called for the development of a statewide network of four-year college campuses, which Payson Mayor Kenny Evans said represents key support for just such a campus in Rim Country.
Brewer on Wednesday said Arizona needs to double the supply of four-year degrees offered by 2020 — but the state can’t afford to meet that need by expanding enrollment at the state’s three existing research universities.
Brewer made the remarks in defending her budget proposal for 2012, which could cut another $180 million from the already bloodied university budgets. In the past several years, the state has cut per-student support for the universities by 50 percent — forcing near-doubling of tuition and deep cuts in staffing.
Evans said he has talked repeatedly to Brewer about the prospects for an ASU branch campus in Payson that would offer undergraduate degrees at half the cost of a similar degree on the Tempe campus.
Evans said the governor’s speech was a direct reference to the Payson campus. “Absolutely,” he said.
University officials this week have said that while their first priority remains the latest budget crisis, they remain committed to making an early decision on the Payson campus. ASU has undertaken a $90,000 marketing study of the campus and continues to spend $10,000 a week on the feasibility study.
Payson officials say they still expect Payson and ASU will in the next “few months” sign a formal intergovernmental agreement to build the first installment of a campus that would open in 2013 or 2014.
Town officials have been making the rounds of local business and service clubs in the past week or two to talk about their efforts to lure new businesses to town, many of them drawn by the prospect of an ASU campus here. The talks have served to underscore the enormous impact such a campus could have on the local economy, which has struggled desperately to regain its footing after the collapse of the housing market.
Evans noted that the town now has active contacts with 23 new businesses interested in starting operations in Payson — including a number of manufacturing firms and a convention hotel that would be among the biggest in the state. However, many of the biggest projects remain contingent on Payson striking a deal with ASU, or some other university.
A delegation of investors backing an ASU campus reportedly spent much of this week in China, negotiating with one of the world’s largest manufacturers of solar cells, which is backed by the Chinese government. Officials from that company have already toured Payson — even looking at houses. However, the chip assembly plant would probably not come to town if the deal with ASU fell through.
In addition, the town has also started conversations with a private firm that would build covered parking and an arena roof at the Payson Event Center, at no cost to the town, said Evans.
The mayor declined to release details of the potential deal, but presumably the firm would generate electricity in some manner from the parking lot and arena roof structures, which they could sell at a profit. That project is also contingent on the town’s ability to land a university campus.
The town also has been talking to a solar energy firm about building a research center here, again linked to ASU. That firm produces a compact unit that would generate heat from a small chamber full of an inert gas containing rare-earth elements. Sunlight would cause the gas to expand in the unit, heating a highly efficient fluid. The rapid heating of that fluid could then both heat and cool a house, without using electricity from the grid. Evans said the device is 93 percent efficient at converting solar energy to a useable form of energy.
“We’re competing for some of the newest and best technology and we’re doing it in a tiny town with a zero budget. I think it’s remarkable that we’ve been as successful as we have and it’s a tribute to the town of Payson. When (business) people come here, they just fall in love with the place,” said Evans.
However, some residents have grown anxious and skeptical in the course of Payson’s two-year courtship of ASU, with its glittering possibilities and mysterious delays. The unemployment rate remains stuck at 9 percent, the construction industry remains moribund, the town has all but abandoned street construction, the building department remains idle and few of the hoped for businesses have yet to commit.
Town officials have tried to give struggling business owners a reason to hang on by talking about the projects in the pipeline, but that means that a collapse of the talks with ASU could crush flickering hopes.
ASU has remained in crisis mode for the past year as it has struggled to cope with one heavy blow after another, delivered by the deficit-plagued state Legislature. Top university officials spent much of the week calculating the impact of the governor’s proposal, which would add $170 million to the $400 million in cuts since 2008.
The governor’s budget would also slash state aid to community colleges by $64 million, a 46 percent reduction in state aid.
ASU President Michael Crow testified this week before legislative budget committees, arguing that the universities remain essential to driving economic growth in the state.
Evans said that the budget crisis may ultimately strengthen the argument for a Payson campus, where students could earn a bachelor’s degree at half the cost of an urban campus, especially when compared to a research university like ASU with programs that rely on expensive infrastructure.
He noted that ASU could respond to Brewer’s challenge to offer a creative way to offer a degree at a much lower cost by moving forward with the Payson campus as a prototype of a new state college system.
“If I was standing on a round log, I would be leaning in the direction of saying that (the universities’ budget crisis) would be good for Payson’s prospects,” said Evans.