County, Alliance Near Deal On Land For College

Gila Community College may enjoy cash windfall if county sells 20 acres for phase one of campus

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Gila County has agreed in principle to sell the Rim Country Educational Alliance 20 acres for phase one of a university campus in Payson, a move that could prove a major financial boon for Gila Community College.

Scrambling to cope with U.S. Forest Service delays, the Alliance asked the county to sell nine acres held in trust for GCC that adjoins a nearly 67-acre parcel of private land Alliance investors have already agreed to buy.

Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin said the county countered with an offer to sell a total of about 20 acres out of a fragmented, 55-acre parcel.

The deal would still leave the five-acre GCC campus with about 30 acres for future expansion and could bring in as much as $1 million up front for the cash-strapped, but fast-growing community college.

“It makes more sense to sell them that whole chunk than to break it up into pieces,” said Martin.

Payson Mayor Kenny Evans said “what we determined once we sat down and talked to them is that we’d end up chopping the property into five separate pieces, which wouldn’t have served the community college well. But they’re only using three or four acres now, so the land they’ll have left will allow a campus many times larger than the current campus.”

Evans said the investors in the university spent between $30,000 and $50,000 per acre to buy the nearby private land. So the sale of 20 acres could yield as much as $1 million for the community college, he said, depending on the independent appraisal of the land value.

Evans said the Alliance has the money available to buy the land. In fact, the original plan for the college called for spending about $82 million in 2011, but delays in clearing the Forest Service land for sale, delays in completing the environmental studies of the Blue Ridge pipeline and ASU’s continued reluctance to make a binding commitment to build the campus have all slowed the project.

“My real problem has been trying to keep on track reserving that money. When a major financial

financial institution makes that kind of a pledge, they’re assuming they’ll be putting that money to work. It is not an easy task to hang onto that kind of money and not be able to spend it because of all the nuances that have been blowing up in our faces.”

He said the extra land north of the highway can replace the 50 acres south of the highway the Payson Ranger District wants to retain for a new ranger station and administrative center.

Payson Head Ranger Angie Elam is pushing to clear some 260 acres right across from the county’s parcel for sale to the Alliance. The money from that sale will provide the Payson District with money for a new ranger station and new firefighting facilities on a separate, 40-acre site. However, it will likely take nearly a year to complete the process of actually selling the land.

So the Alliance wants to build the first, 1,000-student phase of the campus on the land now owned by the county.

The Alliance will likely end up with a total of 90 acres north of the highway fronted by the highway on one side and Tyler Parkway on the other.

The parcel will give the Alliance a big chunk of land on which it can build an industrial park or other facilities connected to the college. The lease of land and facilities to such spinoff, money-making businesses lies at the heart of the effort to build a high-tech, low-cost campus where students can get a degree for between one-third and one-half the tuition at ASU’s Tempe campus.

Gila County acquired the land in trust for GCC as a result of a complicated series of transactions after the Arizona Legislature overhauled the system for building and overseeing community colleges statewide.

The future of GCC will likely become intertwined with the plans to build a university campus.

Recently, ASU struck a deal with Eastern Arizona College, which administers GCC, that will allow students to earn a bachelor’s degree by taking most of their classes at the community college and then transferring to ASU for their final year. The program could enable advanced high school students to start on their degree by taking community college classes and finishing their course work within three years of graduating high school.

ASU officials have said that the Payson campus would likely seek to dovetail its degrees with offerings at GCC to help lower total costs for students.

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