The Forest Service will hold an open house on Sept. 24 to get public input on its plans to sell Payson 300 acres for a college campus — a breakthrough town officials said may make it possible to build the first phase of the college in the original, preferred site.
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans credited Payson Ranger District Head Ranger Angie Elam for almost cutting through thickets of red tape that had threatened to stall the sale of the parcel for another year or more.
The open house from 2 to 4 p.m. next Saturday at the Payson Best Western will give the public a chance to comment on the plans for the land sale and consolidation of Forest Service facilities.
Evans said the Forest Service plans to do an environmental assessment of the sale, but that Elam said she thought the sale could still be completed by this spring — when the town wants to start construction on the campus.
The Forest Service this week released a preliminary report detailing the plan to sell 260 acres for the campus, which is most of a 300-acre parcel Congress earmarked for sale back in 2000.
The Payson Ranger District would use the money from that sale to rebuild its visitor’s center and administrative offices on about 40 acres near the current ranger station. The district would consolidate and improve its fire-fighting operations on a 40-acre site next to Gila County’s maintenance yard in Star Valley at Dealer’s Choice Road.
The preliminary report said the current facilities are scattered, inefficient, poorly insulated and expensive to maintain and operate. The project would enable the Forest Service to greatly expand its space and streamline its operations. That includes shifting heliport operations on leased land near the airport that cost $40,000 annually to a new fire operations center near the county maintenance yard.
Evans said the sudden, surprising rush forward to sell the 260 acres of Forest Service land came just in time to keep the hopes alive of building phase one of the college on the preferred site south of the highway.
However, he said the education alliance will also continue talks with Gila Community College and Gila County about plans to build college-related facilities on more than 67 acres north of the highway. So far, the plans have focused on building a planned research and industrial park on a strip of land overlooking Tyler Parkway and the sand and gravel operation that lies on the other side of the road. The plan then envisions dorms and classrooms sufficient to accommodate phase one. The college could continue to operate those facilities with a bridge across the highway as additional phases spaced over perhaps 10 years added dorms and classroom space needed to handle the full 6,000-student enrollment.
On the other hand, said Evans, the college might also strike a deal with Gila Community College to eventually take over operation of the dorms and classrooms north of the highway to accommodate the community college’s growth in enrollment as the town grows toward its projected build-out population of 38,000.
The preliminary study of the land sale released by the Forest Service this week for the first time laid out the potentially significant advantages the Payson Ranger District could reap from selling its excess land to the Education Alliance for the ASU campus.
The report says the existing hodgepodge of offices, storage sheds and expensive leased space on about 30 acres is “too small and outdated for district staff, fire organization or storage needs and do not meet current standards” for energy efficiency or access by the disabled. Moreover, the district faces an urgent need to reduce its maintenance costs for its aging buildings. The district stashes equipment in 23 scattered portable storage containers.
The report concluded, “The facilities vary in size, age and condition, but overall they are poorly configured, outdated, overcrowded and in need of significant maintenance and repairs or replacements to bring them up to current standards.”