Arizona State University and the Rim Country Educational Alliance (SLE) narrowed their differences to two key issues and each side has agreed to respond to the proposed solutions by July 2, Payson Mayor Kenny Evans revealed at a Town Hall meeting on Thursday morning.
In addition, the Rim Country Educational Foundation and the Alliance have now raised $80,000 to help cover preliminary costs needed to buy some 260 acres of Forest Service land. Last week, the figure stood at $50,000.
Evans said major donors have promised to kick in once fund-raisers cross the $100,000 threshold, prompting him to predict work will resume in the next few weeks on processing the environmental assessment necessary to complete the sale.
The tone of the discussion at the meeting, which drew 50 people to the Payson Senior Center, hit a much more optimistic note than a similar meeting just a week ago.
He said the project remains on track to start construction on the campus in 2013, with the first classes in the fall of 2014.
People familiar with the Tuesday negotiations between the Alliance and ASU indicated the two sides made major progress and even managed to settle the once-central debate about student housing.
“I was pleasingly shocked by how well it went,” said Evans in an interview after the meeting. “It was one of the most positive meetings we’ve ever had. I had really expected that we were going to walk in and shake hands and commiserate. We were able to pass the baton without dropping the baton or the ball.”
The two sides started a Tuesday meeting with 19 significant issues on the table, but by the end of the day had whittled the sticking points to two
One involves ownership of the campus facilities at the end of a 25-year initial lease. The second reportedly involves whether the university would have to pay for the second and third phases of the 6,000-student campus. The Alliance has already agreed to let the university use the 1,000-student first phase virtually rent-free.
Significantly, the two sides reportedly came to a preliminary agreement about how to handle revenue generated by student housing.
Evans said the two sides agreed to work to narrow the remaining differences between now and July 2. If they can strike an agreement on the final issues by then, ASU would seek the approval of the Board of Regents for the agreement, said Evans.
Evans said ASU even threw out some major new ideas that would give it more responsibility and control for actually building the campus and some related facilities.
If the two sides can’t resolve the final few issues by July 2, the Alliance representatives will seek proposals from other universities.
Evans noted that the City of Mesa took that approach after years of fruitless negotiations. The city received 70 responses and narrowed the proposals down to seven finalists. Mesa now has agreements with three universities to set up shop in an educational center and is seeking two more partners. Evans noted that Mesa has offered to share the list of proposals with Payson should the ASU talks fall through.
University backers have also started a series of meetings with community leaders to talk about whether people would rather hold out for a low-tuition public university like ASU or the University of Arizona or seek a partnership with a private university, which might mean tuition of $50,000 or more annually. Backers originally sought a deal with a public university in hopes of providing a model for a state college system where students could get an education as inexpensively as possible.
Evans noted that even if the Alliance makes a deal with ASU, the tuition will probably be 10 to 20 percent less than on the Tempe campus rather than the 50 percent reduction included in the original plans. Evans said the latest calculations suggested the tuition would come in at $8,000 or higher.
The revival of hopes for a deal with ASU in the next month has refocused attention on the effort to get the U.S. Forest Service to sell a chunk of land south of Highway 260 that Congress earmarked for disposal 12 years ago.
The Forest Service has agreed to consider a direct sale of the 300 acres it owns now, which includes the site of the Payson Ranger Station. After several shifts, the Payson Ranger District has decided it wants to keep its ranger station and many maintenance and firefighting facilities on a portion of that land.
However, the Forest Service has said it can’t commit to a direct sale of the land based on an appraisal until it completes an environmental assessment of the parcel. The Alliance has to not only foot the roughly $170,000 cost of the assessment, but come up with another $200,000 to cover the Forest Service’s costs in reviewing the assessment. All told, the process will add $2,000 per acre to the cost of the land, for which the Alliance will then have to pay the appraised price.
The Foundation is trying to raise money to cover those costs, after the lenders said they wouldn’t pay the assessment costs up front. The project developers will likely repay the Foundation for those costs once the project is approved. In that case, the Foundation has promised to use the repaid money to help students at the new campus — perhaps by providing local scholarships.