An Arizona State University campus in Payson will yield a host of benefits, including $40 million annually in new construction for a decade, 600 new staff jobs, hundreds of local construction jobs, ultra high-speed Internet and a more diverse, year-round economy, backers said Thursday before a crowd of about 60 people.
The ASU campus will start with 600 to 1,000 students and grow to 6,000 on-campus students and 60,000 online students within a decade, Payson Mayor Kenny Evans told the attentive crowd in a Gila Community College meeting room. The gathering was one of a series of community forums intended to update people on the plans.
Evans said the plans have survived a bewildering host of setbacks and delays, but when asked when builders will break ground he said, “Perhaps I have my head in the clouds, but I’m saying Dec. 12.”
He also predicted construction will start in August on a 10-megawatt solar power generating project, which will likely cover the parking lot and a new roof for the Event Center with solar cells. Investors can depreciate the entire cost of the project in a single year if they finish by the end of this year under lucrative federal incentives. Various tax incentives effectively reduce the $65 million cost of the project to investors by 50 percent.
Judie Lyons, a member of a volunteer committee set up to plan and promote the campus, opened the session with a slide show highlighting the claimed benefits of the campus, which will include a performing arts center, a flush of new jobs and wintertime economic activity, and new businesses.
Evans said the project will yield major economic benefits to the town, but it will take several years for growth spawned by the campus to even recover the 2,000 people who have moved out of Payson since 2007 as the recession dried up the job pool in the tourism and construction-dependent economy.
“So let’s say the campus adds 500 jobs each year as it grows,” said Evans. “It still takes four years to just get back to where we were in 2007” in terms of traffic.
Evans said Payson and Star Valley will likely complete the process of setting up a Separate Legal Entity next week. He said backers have already set up six of the seven related “Special Purpose Entities,” to actually operate the campus buildings, dorms, a research park, convention hotel, a retail zone, solar power generating facility and other spin-offs. Moreover, lawyers for both sides have drawn up the final language for the Intergovernmental Agreements that would structure the relationship between Payson, Star Valley and ASU.
Evans revealed for the first time that a six-member board will actually run the Separate Legal Entity, which plays landlord to ASU and the spinoff businesses. Payson will appoint half the members and Star Valley the other half. Gila County would have also appointed representatives, but held back so long that Payson and Star Valley went ahead on their own.
Still, Evans acknowledged that ASU has not yet signed the key, intergovernmental agreements and therefore the Dec. 12 groundbreaking remains uncertain.
“I have had more of a yo-yo effect in the last three years than you can possibly imagine,” said Evans. “We had Plan A and Plan B and Plan Z and Plan ZZ, or whatever we’re up to now.”
As a result, backers have drawn up phased plans for construction that would start on either a 60-acre parcel north of Highway 260 next door to Gila Community College or south of the highway on 300 acres of land owned by the U.S. Forest Service, anchored by the current Payson Ranger Station.
Evans spent most of his time reassuring his attentive, friendly audience that the project will yield many benefits for existing residents — with minimal impacts.
He said the campus will open for business in the fall of 2013 with between 600 and 1,000 students and not hit the 6,000-student cap for perhaps a decade.
He predicted the small, forested, high-tech campus will have programs in sustainable technology, business, rural healthcare and the biological sciences. Major corporate partners like IBM, Cisco, Panasonic and others have expressed an interest in helping build a high-tech campus wired from the ground up for the kinds of high-tech techniques that promise to revolutionize education — from all-Internet classes beamed into lecture halls from half-way across the world, to group projects students can develop by communicating on computer screens built into their dorm room walls.
He predicted that the campus will attract unusual “high end” students interested in the rural setting, outdoor activities and specialized focus of the campus, rather than your typical, party-seeking undergrad.
Evans said a few months ago, backers brought a busload of ASU students to Payson to get their impression of the town.
“One sweet little girl climbed out of the bus and looked around and you want to know what was the first question she asked? She said ‘where are the bars.’ Here we are in the middle of a beautiful forest, you can breathe — and that’s her first question. So I think that the traditional party student is not going to be motivated to come to Payson. I think we’ll have high-end students that focus on our specialized areas. We’ll get the best of the best.”
One questioner pressed Evans to say whether he intended to take a job running the SLE — and whether he intended to run for another term as mayor.
Evans dodged the question about whether he plans to run again, but added that “so far as Mayor I’ve spent $63,000 out of my own pocket and collected $24,000 in (council) salary. If you think that’s ‘being paid’ then you can work for me any time and I’ll pay you too.”
He said state laws concerning Separate Legal Entities don’t actually require the businesses inside the district to pay many normal taxes and impact fees. However, the group of investors and donors who have pledged some $400 million to build the campus and related facilities have agreed to pay normal impact fees — and to contract with Payson for things like police and fire protection.
As a result, the campus will generate about $10 million to offset the $45 million cost of the Blue Ridge pipeline, which will provide enough money for Payson to eventually grow to a population of perhaps 38,000.
He said campus backers have also agreed to support provisions that would require contractors building the campus and related facilities to hire two-thirds of their workers locally. That should provide 200 to 300 local construction jobs starting in December, said Evans.
“Will the campus provide jobs? Absolutely. Will it increase the total number of jobs in the community? That depends on whether we keep losing population. Will it improve housing values in the community? I can tell you from 50 years of experience that prices depend on supply and demand. So if we add 400 jobs and at the same time build 400 more houses, then it won’t have much impact on housing prices. But if we bring in new demand and don’t have a big increase in supply, then prices ought to go up.”