After months of frustrating silence, ASU President Michael Crow and ASU Board of Regents Chair Anne Mariucci have issued a letter underscoring their commitment to building a college campus in Payson.
“The Payson ASU campus endeavor is a significant component to the University System’s long-term strategic plan of nearly doubling the number of baccalaureate degrees the system produces by 2020 and increasing the accessibility and affordability of higher education to residents across the state.”
The letter sent to the Roundup represents the highest-level public support offered to the Payson campus after nearly three years of complex, frequently stalled negotiations.
The letter concluded that the project can go forward under existing law, despite a setback for the project delivered several weeks ago by Gov. Jan Brewer’s veto of a key piece of legislation.
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans, reached on his way to Phoenix for yet another meeting on financing details for the $500-million campus plan, said of the letter “I think it’s important that they’re committed to the successful development of a campus in Payson. I don’t how you’d read that letter other than to say they have made a big commitment.”
Reading between the lines, the letter seemed an effort to close ranks with Gov. Brewer, following the furor that followed the governor’s surprise veto of a bill Payson had managed to wheedle through the Legislature that would have allowed ASU to join with Payson in forming a Separate Legal Entity (SLE) to buy the land and build the campus, expected to ultimately accommodate 6,000 students.
The letter (published on page 4A of today’s newspaper) said, “The creation of this innovative campus is fully supported by a cross-section of state and local leaders, including Governor Brewer. We agree with the concerns raised by the governor in her SB 1497 veto letter that the consequences of the proposal for additional legal authority regarding Special Legal Entities are not fully understood and for that reason we had responded to inquiries from the governor and from legislators that we were neither endorsing nor opposing the legislation.”
The legislation would have repealed the current ban on schools participating in SLEs.
Unfortunately, the surprise veto effectively killed a deal to finance the campus with some $400 million in private money promised at a 3 percent interest rate.
As a result of the veto, the town is now scrambling to line up financing at about 5 percent, which will add substantially to the cost of the project and the tuition charged.
In the wake of the veto, Payson partnered with Star Valley to create the SLE, which will buy the land, build the facilities and then lease them to not only ASU but to spin-off businesses including a convention hotel, research park and solar cell manufacturing plant.
ASU has repeatedly stalled on signing a binding Intergovernmental Agreement to build the campus, mostly citing a succession of state budget woes.
The Legislature has cut per-student funding for the state’s universities by about 50 percent in the past three years, provoking a near-doubling of tuition to more than $9,000 annually.
Backers of the Payson campus in recent months have expressed concern that while ASU and the Board of Regents have remained virtually silent on the Payson campus while issuing several press releases extolling a much less ambitious plan to convert an abandoned school into a small ASU campus in Lake Havasu once local backers raise enough money. The release of the letter on the Payson campus this week muted some of those concerns.
“This important new campus will no doubt strongly benefit future Arizona students and their families,” continued President Crow.
“We look forward to engaging in further deliberations with stakeholders on how best to accomplish our mutual goal. Governor Brewer has publicly stated her support for expanding the reach of higher education to rural areas of the state. ABOR shares Governor Brewer’s philosophy that doing so is critical to the long-term economic success of our citizens.”
The Payson campus would presumably charge much lower tuition than ASU’s Tempe campus and focus on a limited number of undergraduate degrees and certificates, with a special focus on green energy technologies and rural health care.
Backers originally hoped the campus could charge just half as much tuition as ASU’s other campuses, but have been revising their plans in the wake of the veto that spiked the original financial package, with its 3 percent interest rate tied to the lowest rate on Payson issued bonds in the previous two years.
Evans said he’s still shooting for a December groundbreaking, but has given up predicting exactly when ASU might sign the Intergovernmental Agreement that would represent the first, firm commitment in writing.