Plan Would Enclose Event Center With Solar Panels

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If you cover it, will they come?

Town officials hope a deal to cover the Payson Event Center with solar panels will not only help convince ASU to build a Payson campus, but also bring more conventions and trade shows to town.

For years, town officials have struggled to find a way to put a roof on the rodeo grounds, which remains the key to staging more conventions, trade shows and special events. Without adequate funding, several plans to roof the arena and build a conference center with a hotel have fallen through.

Now, Payson Mayor Kenny Evans and town economic development coordinator Mike Vogel think they can both upgrade the event center and solve a power quandary for the proposed ASU campus.

Evans said the town has struck a potential $60 million deal with a company that wants to enclose the event center and add solar panels to the roof and parking lot. Evans refused to identify the name of the company due to the sensitivity of the negotiations.

However, he said the whole plan depends on the town convincing ASU to come to Payson, since the campus would buy the power the solar array would generate.

Initial plans feature a 48-foot high dome that would cover the arena and includes space for a conference room, bathrooms and catering kitchen.

The town and the company are still working out the details — including who would actually own the land and the structure, Evans said.

“We don’t know if we (the town) would own it or they would,” he said.

If the company took over ownership, the town would likely lease the space back for a nominal yearly fee, Evans said. That would allow the town to still stage an array of special events — including the World’s Oldest Continuous Rodeo.

The company in turn would collect the power coming off the solar field and feed it to the ASU campus, making the campus energy neutral.

The whole deal hinges on ASU signing an intergovernmental agreement to build the campus.

Evans said he has $100 million in promised donations and $400 million in pledged low-cost financing to fund the ASU project.

In addition, the town is working with the Forest Service to purchase a portion of 300 acres near the Payson Ranger Station. However, ASU has not yet firmly committed itself to the project, pending completion of marketing and feasibility studies — and perhaps an assessment of a proposed 20 percent state cut in university funding in Gov. Jan Brewer’s 2011-12 budget.

Conceptually, Evans envisions an ASU campus like no other in the state. The campus would start with 500 to 1,000 students, but could grow to 6,000 students.

He said the green technology campus would serve as an incubator for great ideas. The campus would feature a research park that facilitates innovative, sustainable technologies. Students could take classes from the comfort of their dorm room through digitized lectures.

The campus would draw new businesses to town, giving new life to the area.

In an economic recession, Payson needs a strong base of counter cyclical businesses to survive. Education is one of those businesses that do better during a recession, he said.

“I don’t see the construction trade ever returning to its former glory,” he said. “This town should never be held hostage to one industry again.”

When the recession hit, building permits and construction jobs plummeted, severely affecting the town’s economy.

“Diversification is crucial,” Evans said. “We don’t want to live in a boom/bust cycle. We need a balance of commercial, service and light- to mid-industry.”

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