Star Valley May Save Payson College Plan

Once-dueling neighbors now collaborating on key issues

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Payson’s ambitious plan to build a college campus in Rim Country now may turn on enlisting the help of neighboring Star Valley.

The revelation marks the latest dramatic shift in the once-contentious relationship between the two neighbors, which a year ago resolved a long-running water war. As if to underscore the new relationship, Star Valley will on Tuesday also discuss its participation in Payson’s Blue Ridge Reservoir project.

Payson Mayor Kenny Evans will appear at Tuesday’s Star Valley Council meeting to suggest an alliance between the two towns to build a four-year college campus in Payson.

Evans’ approach to Star Valley comes in the wake of Gov. Jan Brewer’s unexpected veto of a state law that would have allowed Arizona State University to partner with Payson and Gila County to create a “Separate Legal Entity” to buy the land and build the college facilities.

The veto means that ASU cannot become the required third agency to form the SLE. So if Payson and Gila County still want to form an SLE that would essentially lease space to ASU, they need a third partner under terms of the existing law governing the formation of SLEs.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Evans will discuss incorporating Star Valley into the plan for a 6,000-student undergraduate campus.

The proposed SLE would be in charge of building the campus as well as a possible convention hotel and a research park. Money from those facilities would then be used to keep tuition low at the proposed school. Backers want to use donations and private investments to build the campus at a cost low enough to charge half the tuition as at ASU’s other campuses.

Brewer’s veto jeopardized the whole plan, mostly by costing backers an ultra-low, 3 percent interest rate. Now, backers will have to cope with an interest rate closer to 5 percent, which will add $10 million annually to the cost of the project.

If Star Valley joins with Payson and Gila County in forming the SLE, backers hope to revive the project — while likely charging a higher tuition.

Evans will speak first at Star Valley’s council meeting, which starts at 6:30 p.m. at 3675 E. Highway 260.

Also on the agenda, the council will discuss submitting an application for Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) for street improvement projects on Quail Hollow and Moonlight Drive.

In addition, the town is looking for a firm to provide hydrologic services on the eve of Star Valley deciding if it wants to apply for a portion of surface water from the Blue Ridge Reservoir.

Payson hopes to import 3,000 acre-feet annually from the reservoir by 2015 after it builds a $33 million pipeline.

Salt River Project (SRP) has already met with representatives of six communities that hope to strike a deal to get a share of 500 acre-feet of water reserved for northern Gila County communities other than Payson.

Star Valley could, in theory, qualify for a share of that 500 acre-feet.

Almost all of the communities potentially eligible for a share of the Blue Ridge water now rely on well water, often from shallow wells that fluctuate.

However, given that Star Valley does not have a central distribution system, it is unknown how Star Valley would get water to residents or even pipe it into fire hydrants if it got a share of the water.

The town hopes an engineering firm will help determine the viability of the local aquifer system and its ability to meet current and projected demands.

“Star Valley wishes a reliable and understandable review of data collected to date and an assessment of the sustainability of the local aquifer system to be incorporated into what may be the most important decision town leaders have faced in our brief history,” according to the town’s request for qualifications report.

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