Payson Mayor Hints Good News Is Coming

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The stalled construction of the Blue Ridge pipeline, which has hung up dreams of building a four-year college campus in Payson, may start soon if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service signs off on an environmental assessment.

Payson Mayor Kenny Evans said construction of the $34 million pipeline hinges on one gatekeeper’s approval of the $1 million assessment, which found the pipeline would have no effect on endangered species or critical habitat in the area. Evans spent all day Wednesday in the Valley working to get the go-ahead from officials.

Evans hinted at a university campus forum in Pine-Strawberry Wednesday night that approval may come as early as today.

If the pipeline gets the green light, plans for the college campus can go forward. Without the water, however, Payson can’t sustain a 6,000-student college campus, spin-off businesses and convention center and hotel, Evans said.

Evans and the Rim Country Education Alliance Separate Legal Entity (SLE) board plan to give Arizona State University (ASU) officials a list of deliverables Nov. 8 and, if approved, a lease agreement could go before the Arizona Board of Regents Dec. 3.

That means construction could still start on phase one of the campus as early as next year.

While initial plans had the campus on the south side of Highway 260, roughly adjacent to the Payson Ranger Station, plans now call for building a 1,000-student campus north of Highway 260 on two parcels totalling 76 acres — one private and the other owned by Gila County.

Gila County has hinted it may deed its share of land to Gila Community College who can then decide if it wants to let the SLE build on part of it.

Backers of the campus would then build a second, 2,000-student phase south of the highway on 260 acres of Forest Service land, perhaps opening to students in 2015.

The second phase would also include a 500-room convention hotel, educational conference center and various ancillary businesses.

When phase two is built out, Evans said the north campus might be given to GCC to run as the university shifts south onto the land now owned by the Forest Service.

With so many additional students in the area, GCC’s enrollment could increase exponentially.

Backers hope to create a tightly connected “2-plus-2” program that will make it easy for students to take general education classes at GCC and then transfer those units to the university campus to earn their BA and BS degrees in as little as three years.

In addition, university planners hope to work closely with the Payson Unified School District to encourage students to start taking community college courses as sophomores to complete their college degree within three years of graduating high school.

Fewer years in school means lower costs overall and an extra year in the job market. Although tuition at the Payson university campus will not be $5,000 as Evans had hoped, he still expects it to run significantly less than attending any of ASU’s existing campuses, where tuition alone runs $9,700 annually.

When finished, the campus is expected to have an economic impact of $100 million to $150 million annually.

The campus is also expected to create 600 full-time jobs and many more short-term jobs during construction.With local business owners already making plans to expand to meet student demand, Evans said he gets asked every day when the project will start.

“This is the opportunity of a lifetime,” he said, adding it does not happen overnight.

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