Gila County this week gave the Rim Country Educational Alliance $12,500 to help pay for studies necessary to convince the U.S. Forest Service to sell 260 acres for a university campus.
The money comes from $145,000 the county budget includes for economic development, money the county used to hand over to the now-defunct Northern and Southern Gila County Economic Development Corporations.
County Manager Don McDaniel in a memo to the board of supervisors noted that the county has received requests totaling about $500,000 for a share of that $145,000.
The $12,500 the county gave the Alliance this week is part of some $125,000 the non-profit, Rim Country Educational Foundation has raised to help pay for a $375,000 environmental assessments the Forest Service insists the Alliance must complete before it will decide whether to approve the sale Congress authorized 12 years ago.
“This is significant, it will help us get through,” said Payson Mayor Kenny Evans. “We’re facing an Oct. 19 deadline” for making the next payment. “This support is timely in that it now allows us to pay both the Forest Service and the consultant on time.”
The Alliance has scrambled to raise money to keep the consultants working on the environmental assessment, as the availability of the land has become a critical piece in the jigsaw puzzle of the negotiations.
Backers had earlier said several major donors had promised matching funds once the group raised $100,000, but that money hasn’t yet come through.
Forest Service officials have told the town they hope to complete the environmental assessment by the end of October and perhaps get the sale approved by early next year. That would just barely keep the overall project on schedule for a potential campus opening in the fall of 2014, although the projections of the optimists have repeatedly been confounded.
Intense work continues on the part of the Alliance and Arizona State University, which reportedly had a team of negotiators in Payson this week.
In addition, the Alliance is negotiating with a second, private college hoping to build an additional 500-student campus, most likely on land north of the highway Gila County has agreed to sell to the Alliance. The Alliance has to not only pay the Forest Service-approved consultant, but must pay the Forest Service to review the consultant’s reports, otherwise the project would vanish into a long waiting list of other Forest Service projects.
The Alliance has asked for the Forest Service to approve a “direct sale” of the crucial 260 acres, which means an independent appraiser will set the price and the Alliance won’t have to worry about getting into a bidding war for the land.
However, the Tonto National Forest insists it cannot commit to a direct sale until after the consultant finishes an assessment of the property to determine whether a sale would affect any legally protected resources, like archaeological sites or endangered species.
As a result, the lenders who have pledged some $400 million to build the campus and related facilities balked at covering the $375,000 cost of the studies since there was no commitment to sell. So the Rim Country Educational Foundation vowed to raise the money.
McDaniel in a memo to the Gila County Board of Supervisors wrote, “it is unfortunate there is no guarantee that providing pre-development assistance to the RCEF will result in a university being built in Payson. All of the pre-development costs may be for naught.”
However, McDaniel’s memo stressed the enormous economic development potential of the plan to build a 6,000-student campus and various spin-off facilities. The possible added projects include a 500-room convention hotel, a research park, an incubation center to convert research into products and other ambitious extras.
Earlier this summer, the Foundation asked the county for $250,000 to cover the pre-development costs. An earlier memo from the Foundation noted that “during the economic slump of the past five years, construction jobs have dried up and local businesses are barely hanging on. Without work or money, large numbers of responsive, productive residents have migrated to other areas, further destabilizing the rural economy and sending home prices spiraling downward. In recent years, the Town of Payson has experienced a negative migration of 12 to 15 percent of its citizens. The campus provides an anchor tenant which will attract industry, research and investment to Payson.”