The long, strange, cliffhanger of an effort to turn Payson into a college town has entered a decisive end-game stage, with backers negotiating with a multi-billion-dollar sports corporation to build a student sports academy at the same time they’re drawing up backup plans to seek alternatives to Arizona State University to build an additional, 6,000-student campus, Payson Mayor Kenny Evans told a group of community leaders gathered at The Rim Club on Saturday.
Officials from the Rim Country Educational Alliance met late into the night Friday with the developers representing IMG Academies, which operates a string of high-tech, East Coast training, academic and conditioning schools for thousands of students from 80 countries.
Meanwhile, the Alliance’s legal advisers are working on a backup plan that would offer a low-cost campus to any one of “a number” of interested universities should negotiations with Arizona State University flounder on the university’s insistence on owning the campus and keeping all the revenue from the student dormitories.
Evans said he’s still optimistic the Alliance could build the first phase of a campus for IMG north of Highway 260 by late 2013 and the first 1,000-student phase of a university south of the highway by the fall of 2014.
Evans conceded that the ambitious effort has suffered repeated delays and setbacks, noting that nine key financial backers have died and others have suffered “catastrophic personal events” in the course of the effort. In offering his most detailed account of the complex, evolving negotiations he sought to dampen rumors that ASU had backed out and the college plans had died.
“I’ve heard rumors for two weeks that ASU doesn’t want to come to Payson. ASU responded and said in a letter ‘we continue to believe we can work things out.’ I’m not sure we can still bring the two parties together. So we need an alternative plan just in case we can’t work things out with ASU — and we do have other universities that are very interested.”
Evans said he’d tried to take the rumors in stride, as well as the anxieties of residents and businesses clinging to the end of their economic rope, hoping for a huge boost for the community if the Alliance closes a deal to bring a university to town.
“You expect the comments from your critics, but when your friends start criticizing — saying ‘the mayor is just blowing smoke’ or wasting the town’s money — it starts to hurt,” said Evans. “If their goal is to inflict pain, they have succeeded. Each time an obstacle or challenge has surfaced, we have found creative ways to deal with the problem — and hopefully will be able to continue to do so.”
The three-year effort to talk ASU into operating a campus here has morphed into a nerve-racking, high-stakes poker game with IMG’s interest and the Alliance’s shift in strategy.
Increasingly, the Alliance seems willing to consider a take-it-or-leave-it deal to present to competing universities. The deal would reportedly offer a low-cost, high-tech, digital campus with the lowest university tuition in the state. The revenues from student dorms and other spin-off businesses would reduce the university’s rent, including a convention hotel, research center and incubation center to turn faculty research into patents and products. If a deal with ASU can’t be worked out, the Alliance would reluctantly abandon its exclusive negotiating agreement and follow the bidding-war model used successfully by the town of Mesa, which cut a deal with a private university after getting letters of interest from more than 100 contenders.
In the new approach, the Alliance would seek a new partner for its already developed plan on a first-come, best-deal basis, say sources close to the negotiations.
IMG wants to build a multi-million academy in Arizona or New Mexico, which could include a Payson component that would include 60,000 square feet of classroom space and training and conditioning facilities and athletic fields north of Highway 260 and fronting on Tyler Parkway, said Evans.
The partners have also discussed an investment that would turn the 50-mile Payson Area Trails system into a world-class network of bike and running trails. IMG could reap substantial tax and construction benefits from leasing facilities from the Alliance, which would build and own the facilities through its Separate Legal Entity (SLE), said Evans.
The IMG facility here could resemble the 400-acre IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., where students include elite high school, college and professional athletes and where tuition approaches $70,000 annually, said Evans.
The campus operates with a significant student housing component and includes condominiums where families of young athletes live during the school year.
IMG also operates a global sports empire that includes agent representation for many teams and athletes, including most of the PAC-12 schools.
Evans said that if the Alliance and IMG can agree on terms in the next month or two, construction could start late this year on some 90 acres north of Highway 260, including 22 acres Gila County has agreed to sell and 67 acres of privately owned land the Alliance has an option to buy. He noted that the IMG plan would dovetail perfectly with future expansion plans for Gila Community College on about 35 acres of land next door.
The IMG campus would include substantial athletic fields and training facilities, which could benefit GCC. In addition, the IMG campus and the GCC campus could both use solar and geothermal power systems, which would allow the Alliance to take advantage of substantial federal incentives for building such power-generating systems.
The emergence of IMG in recent months has also caused a fresh upheaval in the timeline and the building plans, since the 100 acres north of the highway and the 300 acres of Forest Service-owned land south of the highway now seem like barely enough room for the two campuses and the support facilities. The Alliance has long planned a forested campus with half the land left in open space to create an idyllic setting that combines high-tech, virtual learning with an energy self-sufficient campus in which buildings fade into forested swales, underscoring the academic emphasis on sustainability.
The Alliance continues to negotiate with the Forest Service to buy 300 acres south of the highway that Congress earmarked for sale a decade ago. Forest Service officials have said they believe they can complete the sale of that land by late this year or early next year, providing the Alliance can come up with about $500,000 to do an environmental study and another $160,000 to pay for the time of Forest Service personnel overseeing the environmental study.
So the Alliance has to raise the money to do the studies, then pay the appraised price set by an independent appraiser.
All of that complicates the construction schedule, said Evans.
In the best-case scenario, IMG will strike a deal in the next few months and begin construction on its campus north of the highway late this year.
Meanwhile, the Alliance would sometime this summer conclude a deal with a university partner and complete the Forest Service land purchase by the end of the year or early next year. That would make it possible to start construction on the second campus south of the highway in about a year, said Evans.
However, if the IMG negotiations fall through, the Alliance could still start the university campus north of the highway within the year.