Just one more bewildering knot left to cut through before Rim Country gets a university, Payson Mayor Kenny Evans said this week.
Unfortunately, that knot involves the convoluted relationship between Gila Community College, Gila County and the Rim Country Educational Alliance (SLE) — and a 22-acre piece of land with a strange history.
If on Dec. 4 the Gila County Board of Supervisors ignores the Gila Community College Board’s proposed conditions on the sale of the land, the Rim Country could return to its original schedule and have a university campus here in the fall of 2013, said Evans.
The GCC board recently asked the county to get a second independent appraisal and restrict the use of the land to educational purposes.
If the county supervisors adopt those conditions, Evans said he would recommend the SLE board walk away from the deal.
“I’m bent beyond the breaking point right now,” said Evans. “We’ve got the university ready to go forward and now the GCC board is saying, ‘we want more time to think about it.’ My recommendation to the SLE in that case would be to say ‘thank you very much’ and go on with their world.”
Supervisor Tommie Martin said she favored relying on the county’s existing appraisal to sell 22 acres to the Alliance without conditions on its use.
“I don’t want to be a stumbling block, I want to be a stepping stone,” said Martin.
The board of supervisors meets today to decide whether to give GCC roughly 33 acres to accommodate its future growth. The board will then meet on Dec. 4 to decide whether to sell roughly 22 acres to the Alliance for the appraised price of about $25,000 per acre.
Martin said, “we need to be doing what’s right, not trying to figure out who’s right.”
However, GCC board member Tom Loeffler said the community college board simply wanted to make sure that the Alliance doesn’t build an industrial park next door to the community college campus — and to ensure the county gets a fair price.
“Personally, I’m very much in favor of having a (university) campus here,” said Loeffler. “I think that will do great things economically, educationally, emotionally — it’s all positive as far as I’m concerned. But I don’t bend to people that say, if you don’t do it my way I’m going to take my ball and go home. I think there’s room to answer these questions.”
Several GCC board members questioned the outcome of a 200-page appraisal report that put the value of the roughly 22 acres the county has offered to sell to the Alliance at $25,000 per acre — or about $550,000. That compares to an appraisal that put the value of a one-acre parcel owned by Payson at $50,000.
The county would in turn give that money to GCC to finance future growth.
As a separate issue, the county would then also have to decide whether to stop providing the community college with a $300,000 annual subsidy to pay for building maintenance on land technically owned by the county.
Martin conceded that “I’m catching hell from people saying: How can one acre be worth $50,000, but the rest of it worth $25,000 an acre.”
Evans said the one-acre Payson parcel was largely flat and buildable. However, the 22-acre county parcel included several acres earmarked for roads and five or six acres of steep hillside land.
He said the first appraisal took 45 days to complete — and another 45-day delay could deal a body blow to a schedule that envisions submitting the plan to the Arizona Board of Regents for approval in December.
Moreover, a meeting last week between ASU and the developer prompted both sides to adopt a schedule that could see the first crop of freshmen arriving in August of 2013, said Evans.
The more fundamental problem posed by the GCC board’s proposed conditions involves a prohibition on using any part of the 22 acres for a non-educational purpose.
The Alliance hopes to use just 10 acres of the county land for phase one of the university campus, along with dorms to house up to 1,000 students. However, the balance of the county land would connect to 67 acres of private land the Alliance wants to use for spinoff businesses that would generate enough profit to keep the cost of the campus low. For instance, the Alliance might build an industrial park on land along Tyler Parkway that includes both the county land and the private land. That would include a home for a solar cell assembly plant proposed by a Chinese company.
The county acquired the whole 55-acre parcel some years ago from the state community college board to hold in trust for higher education in the region, specifically for expansion of the community college — which at that point didn’t exist.
Loeffler noted, “I don’t have a copy in front of me of their plans: all I know is that we as a board did not want to have some industrial site right next to our campus.”
However, the Alliance’s current plans would build classrooms, administrative buildings and student dorms on the 10 acres next to the 33 acres earmarked for future expansion of GCC. The plan would keep about 50 percent of the total site in open space and put the industrial park or other developments on the eastern end of the property — widely separated from the land GCC would end up owning.
Evans said, “they want to tell us we can only have educational buildings on the site. But this is a public-private model. The only way we can build this campus and make economic sense of it is to have the SLE have the ability to raise money and use that money to offset the cost of education. Their condition would keep us from having dormitories, a cafeteria and retail businesses.”