Payson Campus Plans Enter Critical Phase

Mayor vows town will have a campus no matter what, as deadlines loom in talks with ASU

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Payson will have a college campus — no matter what Arizona State University decides in the next month or so, said Payson Mayor Kenny Evans this week.

“There will be a campus in Payson and it will focus on the high-tech areas,” said Evans.

However, he expressed confidence that in the next few weeks ASU will complete its marketing study and sign a memorandum of understanding to build the first phase of a college on a recently acquired 60-acre parcel next to Gila Community College.

A flurry of activity taking place this week will determine key elements of the innovative plan to build a solar and geothermal powered campus to offer key undergraduate degrees at half the tuition cost of those degrees at ASU’s Tempe campus.

This week, backers of the campus are meeting with bond experts in New York City to try to extend a lock on financing that would provide money at a low 2.9 percent interest rate.

The project’s lock on that low interest rate expires this week if the developers don’t start drawing on a $400 million financial package.

Backers hope to now lock in the low rates with the purchase of 60 acres of private land plus the agreement to build a $60 million solar cell field that would cover the Payson Event Center with power-generating solar cells, which will eventually power the campus.

Such a move would substantially up the commitments of donors and investors. Evans said the town of Payson itself has so far not spent any money on the project.

“The town of Payson has spent nothing on this project — zero, zilch,” he said. “None of the money that has been spent is public money.”

Evans has previously said donors have pledged $100 million and investors have promised another $300 to 400 million. The town intends to set up what amounts to an improvement district that will build the campus and the facilities for the related businesses, including a 500-room convention hotel, a research park, a chip assembly plant and now the $60 million solar cell power-generating plant to put a roof on the event center and cover both it and the parking lot with solar panels.

An international network of backers and investors has drawn surprising interest in a campus that would generate more power than it uses, allow students to attend classes, do research and work on projects from anywhere on campus — from dorm rooms to coffee shops. As a spinoff, the whole town would likely end up with ultra-high-speed, wireless Internet.

Next week, town officials will meet at Chaparral Pines with executives from Corning Glass and Panasonic. Those companies say they want to turn the new campus into what amounts to a demonstration of cutting edge technology that will effectively turn mirrors, walls and countertops into touch-sensitive computer screens. The technology could extend from dorms to classrooms, providing Internet connections and educational tools throughout the campus, said Evans.

Campus backers have worked feverishly for the past year fielding such inquiries and adapting to one cliffhanger challenge after another involving either the U.S. Forest Service or ASU, two massive bureaucracies coping with severe financial challenges.

“We’ve just been trying to keep all the pieces in place,” said Evans, noting that backers have met with investors in China, Shangai, South Africa, Belgium and Japan to develop various components of the project.

“The campus will have a very international flavor,” said Evans.

But keeping the project alive has required steel nerves and constant improvisation.

For instance, backers had to completely overhaul their plans when it became obvious recently that it would take the Forest Service another year or two to labor through a thicket of regulations before it could sell the 300-acre site Congress earmarked for sale nearly a decade ago.

Evans noted that the town is now negotiating with 24 different companies that want to set up businesses in Payson, although most of those proposals remain contingent on Payson actually landing a college campus here.

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