Like a professional boxer, economic director Mike Vogel dodged and weaved questions on the progress to bring a four-year university to town Tuesday in an hour-long meeting that left most with more questions than answers.
Vogel said he could not go into detail on plans to build a 6,000-student, $700 million university campus in Payson because it could jeopardize negotiations.
“It will happen, I promise you that,” Vogel said.
This assurance seemed to do little for several community members at the Q&A session at Tiny’s Restaurant.
“At one point does the (Educational) Alliance just walk away?” one woman asked.
“You don’t walk in and say, ‘Here it is, take it or leave it,’ and walk out the door — it doesn’t work that way,” Vogel said.
Vogel and Payson Mayor Kenny Evans have worked for four years to bring a state-of-the-art, “green” campus to Payson. Negotiations with Arizona State University seemed to have stalled with ASU yet to sign on for the project. After several years of promises that the university was coming, some residents and business owners at Tuesday’s meeting appeared restless.
Resident John Wakelin asked if the millions in private donations promised for the project were evaporating, especially since nine of the original backers of the campus died.
Town Manager Debra Galbraith said while some of the donors have died, the money they pledged for the project is still available.
While donors have pledged millions, most will not write a check until a university has “signed on the dotted line,” she said.
Meanwhile, other donors are reportedly covering some predevelopment costs.
Recently, the Rim Country Educational Foundation started asking for donations from the community to help cover some of those costs. The group says money will go toward environmental studies, land surveys and dissemination of information to the public.
The money will also go toward paying D7 Development, which the Rim Country Educational Alliance recently agreed to pay $2.2 million, including a $250,000 advance, to draw up a master plan for the campus.
Wakelin asked who was footing the bill for D7 Development.
“It will get taken care of,” Vogel said.
Vogel added he has purposely never looked at a list of donors because he wants to keep anonymous donors anonymous.
Vogel also said he didn’t know if IMG was still interested in opening a sports academy if the university came.
Vogel alluded to “five pieces of the puzzle” at IMG needing to agree for that to happen.
At an April 12 Alliance meeting, the board voted to allow Vogel, who also serves as the Alliance chair, to “enter into negotiations with various colleges/universities regarding occupancy of a campus of higher learning on the campus project in Payson, and for him to return to the board when the negotiations are complete.”
When a resident asked Vogel if the Alliance was taking bids from other colleges, Vogel said eight other universities were interested, but ASU was still the lead choice.
If the Alliance decided to exit negotiations with ASU it would have to do so delicately.
“You have to walk away as friends. You don’t have to agree, but you have to walk away respectfully,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we are going to walk away because they may change their minds or I may change my mind ... but to be on the safe side, nobody ever does a project without at least two or three, or in this case eight or nine (backups).”
“There is a system you have to use and that is what we are doing. Does that system take time? Yes.”
Payson Councilor Su Connell said residents should not give up on a college coming.
“It isn’t like going and buying a loaf of bread and you go home and have a sandwich. It isn’t that easy. There are people involved and corporations involved and a university and we have to work through all of those,” she said.