Rumors, anxiety, deadlock and a fund-raising campaign have spooked many longtime backers of the plan to build a 6,000-student, $400 million university campus in Payson.
However, backers of the four-year quest to build a university here insist that Payson will have a university within two years — even if it’s not Arizona State University.
In fact, the Rim Country Educational Alliance (SLE) board at its last meeting voted to seek a development firm to draw up a master plan for the campus.
The Alliance board approved a $2.2 million price tag for the “pre-development” contract, including a $250,000 advance.
The Alliance board also directed Chairman Mike Vogel to meet with representatives from Arizona State University to make a final effort to strike a deal that has flitted just out of reach for the past four years.
After years of frustrating negotiations on constantly shifting terms, ASU more than a month ago offered to come if it could not only have free rent, but keep all of the profit from the rental of dorm rooms. ASU had also said it wanted to end up owning the campus buildings, which the SLE would initially construct.
The Alliance drew up a list of counter-proposals for Vogel to present in a last-ditch effort to salvage a deal with the largest public university in the nation.
However, the board also voted to move forward with the pre-development agreement, so it could come up with a complete proposal for other universities that have expressed interest in bidding on the campus.
The agreement would cover developing a timetable, site plan, specifications and financing for “academic buildings, student housing, student services, athletic facilities, dining, parking, retail, entertainment, hospitality, research laboratory and support services.”
The agreement would cover both 20 acres located north of Highway 260 fronting Tyler Parkway and 300 acres of Forest Service land directly across the highway. The Alliance also has the option to buy another 67 acres north of Highway 260, apparently not included in the pre-development agreement.
The proposed predevelopment agreement makes no mention of planning for a sports academy in addition to the university. Backers of the university plan say they have had informal discussions with a development company connected with IMG international and explored the idea through various backchannel links. However, IMG officials have denied any knowledge of the discussions on the record.
Vogel said the Alliance board has not had any conversations with IMG about a 1,000-student sports academy.
So the Alliance board’s latest action remains focused on finding a single, university partner.
The situation has been further muddied by a parallel fund-raising drive by the Rim Country Educational Foundation, which has launched a campaign to raise money to support the campus plan.
The Foundation has worked closely with Payson Mayor Kenny Evans in the past and launched its drive in response to Evans’ request for concrete community support.
However, Vogel said the fund-raising effort remains independent from the Alliance and stressed that the Alliance has access to enough money to keep the project moving forward, even if the community fund-raising effort lags.
“There’s going to be a damn college out there,” said Vogel. “I’m not into wasting time — but we have a whole bunch of stuff to do. I’m not absolutely counting on a single dime” from the community fund-raising effort. “We’re not the ones out there raising it. If it comes up with nothing, the plan still goes forward.”
Evans put out a statement about the fund-raising drive that said the donors and financers who have pledged $400 million to build the campus if the Alliance can line up a university partner told him they wanted to see concrete signs of community support.
“Great progress has been made so far, but the cost has been borne by just a few individuals. Funding the first mile of our journey toward building a campus has been accomplished and we have secured the funding for the last mile. Funding the middle mile of that progress is now our immediate task.”
Evans said the Alliance was acquiring a “bridge loan” from a local bank to cover many of the early development costs to complete the environmental assessment necessary to buy the 300-acre Forest Service parcel.
“Our current goal is to raise a few hundred thousand dollars to pay the balance of the pre-development assessment costs associated with the purchase of 260 acres of Forest Service land,” said Evans.
Evans noted that the Alliance set a short-term goal of $50,000, but has already received a pledge to match the first $25,000 raised.
Nonetheless, as members of the Foundation have made their pitch to various community groups, the effort has sometimes spawned fears that the effort to build a college has faltered.
The crusade to build a high-tech, energy self-sufficient campus here has suffered repeated delays and setbacks in the past four years, most of them related to the effort to convince ASU to make a clear commitment to building the campus.
For most of that time, the Alliance has abided by an agreement to negotiate exclusively with ASU, after the university and the Town of Payson signed a memorandum of understanding.
ASU has suffered repeated budget setbacks in that time at the hands of the state Legislature, but did much better this year — thanks to the Legislature’s agreement to set aside $15 million to start to equalize funding among the state’s three universities. Currently, the University of Arizona gets an average of $6,600 per student from the state while Northern Arizona University gets $5,850 and ASU gets $5,702. The Legislature agreed to increase funding for ASU by a total of $60 million in the next four years to equalize funding.
Ironically, the apparent breakdown in talks with ASU about building a campus here comes just when the ASU athletic department delighted town officials and longtime supporters by resuming the use of Tontozona near Christopher Creek to train its football team during the summer.