Backers of the plan to build a university in Payson tonight will celebrate hitting crucial fund-raising goals at a 7 p.m. gathering at the Oxbow where they’ll raffle off a $14,000 Polaris ATV.
Months of fund-raising produced $133,500 in donations, enough to pay up front costs for the environmental assessment the U.S. Forest Service requires in order to sell some 260 acres needed for a 6,000-student university campus south of Highway 260 fronting Rim Club Parkway.
“We’re very pleased,” said Richard Johnson, head of the fund-raising committee for the University in Payson Initiative, which teamed up with the Central Arizona Board of Realtors to mount the fund-raising effort.
Johnson said he hopes the 250 people who spent $100 each for a raffle ticket will show up for the festivities this evening, which will probably blend into an election night gathering for supporters of Gila County sheriff candidate Adam Shepherd and others.
Johnson noted that another major donor has promised a matching $100,000 before the end of the year.
The group has also made arrangements for a $50,000 loan to the committee if needed.
Johnson said the group is also pursuing grants and loans from the Northern Gila County Industrial Development Association.
Some 200 people made direct donations and hundreds more left money in “change for change” cans in the community. The Board of Realtors donated $25,000 to kick off the effort.
The donated money will actually work for the project twice — once in covering early land purchase costs and then to fund scholarships for local students, said Johnson.
According to a press release issued by the fund-raising committee, “The donated funds thus far have covered the ongoing pre-purchase costs related to the Forest Service property. The remaining $241,500 in anticipated costs will be covered through additional year-end fund-raising and loans. Because the campus developer has promised to reimburse the non-profit Rim Country Educational Foundation (RCEF) for these predevelopment expenses, RCEF will dedicate reimbursed donations to scholarships for local students to attend the university campus after it becomes operational. Consequently, donations to RCEF will have a double impact on increasing educational opportunities for the Payson community.”
The fund-raising effort and pledges will cover the bulk of an estimated $375,000 the Forest Service said it needed to determine whether it could sell the land to the RCEF.
The backers must not only pay the consultant, but also pay the Forest Service for the staff time it takes to read the consultant’s report.
The fund-raising will cover the cost of preparing a Sales Implementation Strategy, in hopes the Forest Service will sell the land at a price set by an independent appraiser rather than going through a land swap or competitive bidding process. Congress directed the Forest Service to sell the site about 12 years ago.
The Educational Alliance has already submitted the draft environmental assessment to the Forest Service. The report found no significant problems, like endangered species or archaeological sites likely to require additional delays or studies. Backers hope that the Forest Service will approve the environmental assessment by early December. That could lead to an actual sale by early next year.
Sources close to the ongoing negotiations with ASU say the Forest Service approval of the land sale environmental assessment remains one of the final hurdles to signing a deal.
Negotiators have reportedly come to terms on most major issues that once threatened to derail the project, like whether ASU could eventually own the classroom facilities and whether the Education Alliance SLE could use money from student dorms to offset its costs. Reportedly, the talks now involve several other private universities that would operate on the same campus complex. As a result, the project now needs not only the full 260 acres owned by the Forest Service south of the highway, but the more than 90 acres the Alliance has an option to buy north of the highway.
The fund-raising committee staged a series of high profile events leading up to tonight’s raffle at the Oxbow. Other events included the Art Walk on the Rim, open houses and the Change for Change campaign.
The group continues to raise money, partly as a contingency plan in case promised matching donations fail to materialize. Any extra money raised will go into a fund to provide scholarships to the university campus for Rim Country students.