The crooked path to building a college campus in Payson by 2013 or 2014 now runs through Gila Community College — and a nine-acre parcel owned by Gila County.
College backers have abandoned hopes of completing a Forest Service land sale on 260 acres south of Highway 260 in time to build a 1,000-student phase one.
Instead, they say they will build phase one north of the highway — hopefully on 76 acres that includes nine acres now owned by Gila County, and held in trust for the future expansion of the community college.
Unfortunately, Payson Mayor Kenny Evans’ attempt to explain the plan at a joint meeting of the GCC board and the board of supervisors seemed to generate more questions than answers, at least with the members of those two governing boards.
“If we are going to give up some of our campus land to another educational entity, any contract should spell out the functions allowed of any proposed buildings,” said Tom Loeffler, GCC board member.
However, Mayor Evans in an interview afterward said, “Although it may have sounded negative, I think in the end the meeting helped outline that certain things had to occur. We have a specific plan and here’s how we get from where we are to where we need to be.”
Still, county supervisors on Tuesday agreed to start the process rolling.
Evans said the Rim Country Education Alliance SLE has the option to buy 67 acres of private land north of the highway near GCC.
The Alliance wants to also buy or lease about nine acres of the nearly 60 acres the county owns so it can position the classes and dorms for 1,000 ASU students directly across the highway from the chunk of Forest Service land earmarked for the 2,000-student phase two, which would open in 2015 or 2016.
If the Alliance can buy or lease the county land, the two halves of the campus a pedestrian bridge over the highway could link the classrooms and dorms. However, Evans said if the county balks, the Alliance will build phase one entirely on the private land.
Evans said he hoped negotiators could strike a deal by late October. County officials seemed to think the process might take much longer.
Land needed to avoid building delays
Acquiring the county land gained sudden urgency as a result of the Forest Service delay in freeing up for sale a 300-acre parcel earmarked for sale by Congress a decade ago.
Evans described the deal with GCC as a win-win proposal — providing the university with the best site for phase one and providing the cash-strapped community college with either an up-front payment or revenue from a long-term lease.
“We’re willing to lease the land, but we would prefer to buy,” said Evans.
The supervisors readily agreed to support the eventual transfer of the land, but said they need more information.
“We should plan for the ultimate needs of the Payson campus first in order to determine what the footprint should be, i.e., how big. Then see what is ‘surplus,’” said Larry Stephenson, GCC board member.
Evans later said the university campus would need only nine out of the 60 acres, leaving GCC with plenty of land to expand.
The discussion was complicated by the convoluted history of that parcel, which the county acquired in 2002 as a result of actions by the state Legislature, said John Nelson, deputy county manager.
In that year, the Legislature negotiated the purchase of the land from the Forest Service on behalf of the Board of Directors for Community Colleges for Arizona (BDCCA). But before the sale went through, the Legislature disbanded the BDCCA.
With no governing entity for GCC in existence yet, the county accepted responsibility for the land, said Nelson.
Land sale or lease means
revenue for GCC
Evans said selling or leasing the eight acres would turn empty land into revenue.
“We’re not talking about consuming something you would need in the future,” said Evans.
However, county officials balked at accepting Evans’ assurances. “I don’t know how much of that land is usable,” said Supervisor Shirley Dawson.
“We’re talking about leaving enough land for GCC to use to develop at a future date,” said Evans.
Evans said an engineer hired by the Alliance has worked out a potential site plan and concluded even without the nine acres GCC would have enough land to expand into a 3,000-student campus.
The land held in trust sits to the east of the current community college campus. Graham Ranch Road runs along the northern border. The property extends to Tyler Parkway. Highway 260 defines the southern border with Mud Springs Road defining the western border.
Currently, GCC uses about three of the 60 acres. The Alliance wants to split the land between the ASU campus and GCC down the center of the parcel giving ASU the eastern most portion of land totaling about 8.9 acres.
Several county and GCC board members during the meeting suggested Evans should have explained the plans for the college and the need for the nine acres sooner.
“I have to express disappointment that this is the first time we’ve heard of this,” said Stephenson.
However, Evans later said the issue only became urgent when college backers realized it will take the Forest Service at least 10 more months to sell the land south of the highway. In addition, the deep divisions between north and south on the GCC board made him reluctant to talk to individual board members, for fear of offending board members from the opposing faction.
Evans said the university developers hope to build some of the spinoff businesses on the private land north of the highway if the county will sell the Alliance the nine-acre parcel for the campus.
Solar cell assembly plant
For instance, developers may build a solar cell assembly plant and other research facilities fronting Tyler Parkway overlooking the sand and gravel pit. Evans noted that 75 percent of the land north of the highway in phase one will likely end up as open space, to give the campus a forested feel.
The reaction of county officials after the meeting made it clear the Alliance has a lot of negotiating ahead to secure the land transfer fast enough to make it possible to stick to plans for a spring groundbreaking on phase one.
Evans has said he hopes the county can conclude the land sale by mid to late October.
However, county officials seemed skeptical. “It’s difficult to create a possible lease without knowing exactly what the SLE would want,” said Bryan Chambers, deputy county attorney.