More than 100 people left comments at Saturday’s Forest Service open house supporting the quick sale of 300 acres on which Payson hopes to build a 6,000-student campus.
Hundreds of people filtered past the maps and charts in the Best Western conference room on Saturday afternoon. The presentations detailed the Payson Ranger District’s plan to sell to the Separate Legal Entity building the campus some 260 acres.
The district will then use the money from the land sale to build a new ranger station and administrative offices on about 40 acres near the current Payson Ranger Station and to consolidate its fire-fighting operations on another 40-acre parcel adjacent to the current Gila County Maintenance Yard.
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans said “we had an excellent turnout, with good open and honest communications with the Forest Service staff.
“I felt really good that the Forest Service did a really excellent job of explaining the process to people.”
He said despite widespread community frustration with all the delays in launching the campus, almost everyone came seeking information.
“I was a little worried people would be angry and fuming, but it was a very constructive, congenial exchange. I think both sides came away feeling good about it.”
Nonetheless, Evans said campus planners are still assuming that they’ll build the first, 1,000-student phase of the campus north of Highway 260 in 2014 on two parcels — one private and the other owned by Gila County.
Backers of the campus would then build a second, 2,000-student phase south of the highway on the Forest Service land, perhaps opening to students in 2015.
Evans said even though Payson district’s head ranger Angie Elam said she thought the Tonto National Forest could complete the sale of the 260 acres next spring, campus planners didn’t want to gamble on an optimistic Forest Service timetable.
He said the Blue Ridge pipeline suffered a nearly year-long delay as a result of an environmental assessment, even though the Forest Service had signed a contract and taken a big upfront payment to complete the assessment on a certain timetable.
“I just have a sixth sense (about the land sale) that even with their best efforts, they’re going to find little bumps along the road that will make it extend out.”
However, he said that starting the campus north of the highway adjacent to Gila Community College might ultimately prove a blessing. He said starting the campus north of the highway will make it easier to seamlessly connect the degree programs at the two campuses.
“We’re looking at how we can capitalize on this little bump in the road and make the best out of the lemons we’ve been given,” said Evans.
University backers hope to create a tightly connected “2-plus-2” program that will make it easy for students to take their general education classes at community college rates and then transfer all those units to the university campus to earn their BA and BS degrees.
In addition, university backers hope to work closely with the Payson Unified School District to enable students who start taking community college courses while they’re in high school to complete a college degree within three years of graduating from high school at a much lower cost than attending any of ASU’s existing campuses, where tuition alone now runs more than $9,000 annually.
“That all works best if both campuses are close together,” said Evans of the potential benefit of starting the ASU campus north of the highway.
University backers plan a joint meeting with the Gila County Board of Supervisors and the Gila Community College board to discuss the relationship between the two campuses.
Gila County owns a parcel of land next to the north campus site reserved for the future expansion of the community college. One plan would envision building university facilities there that would eventually provide facilities to support the expansion of the community college as the university shifts south onto the land now owned by the Forest Service.