University Plans Progress -- But Forest Service Land Sale Moves Slowly

This year backers will close the deal on a university campus to transform economy

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The plan to build a university campus in Payson has more twists and turns than the most convoluted of mystery novels.

So the ardent and determined backers of the plan for a 6,000-student campus found themselves starting out yet another years urging Rim Country residents to be patient – the university is coming.

This year.

Honest.

Five years into the struggle, the backers of the audacious, game-changing plan to build a 6,000-student university, a 500-room hotel, a incubation center to turn research into startups, a solar chip assembly plant, a research park and dorms continue to stubbornly surmount one challenge after another.

The most recent delay stems from the effort to buy from the Tonto National Forest a 260-acre plot south of Highway 260 and west of Rim Club Parkway. The Rim Country Educational Alliance SLE wants to use a direct purchase based on an independent appraisal to buy from the federal government what remains perhaps the biggest, undeveloped patch of ground in town. The proposed campus lies just across the highway from some 90 acres on Alliance has an option to buy.

After yeas of convoluted negotiations with ASU that reportedly had resolved all the significant outstanding issues, like the layout of the campus, tuition levels, who owns the dorms, who ends up owning the campus facilities and other key issues, backers last year could nearly taste the sweet fruits of their labor.

All they had to do was raise about $150,000 to pay for an environmental assessment of the land sale, which Congress had earmarked for disposal more than a decade ago.

The Forest Service said it couldn’t make a decision about the sale until the Alliance completed the expensive assessment – and ASU didn’t want to sign a deal and commit to building a campus until the Alliance had the land in hand.

So the backers raised the $150,000 from a cash-strapped community in a matter a months – a small miracle in itself.

The money paid for an assessment, which revealed no serious environmental problems with the sale: No endangered critters, now endangered plants, no toxic substances, no air pollution, no spotted owls.

Just one little thing.

The consultants found some pottery shards (or maybe chips of stone) in six locations on the 260 acres the Alliance wants to buy.

This triggered a new round of negotiations between the US Forest Service and the Alliance about selling the land. State and federal laws require the federal government to protect archeological remains on public lands. Forest Service procedures would normally require a developer to come up with a plan to protect or recover the artifacts before it could sell the land. As a result, the Forest Service reportedly said that the Alliance would have to do an additional study costing about $230,000 and consuming another six to eight months before the Forest Service could agree to sell the land. The Forest Service reportedly said it needed a plan to deal with the pottery shards, even though most of the experts doubted the shards signaled the presence of a settlement or a burial site. At this writing, the Alliance continues to negotiate with the Forest Service for some agreement that would let the land sale go forward in return for a promise from the Alliance to investigate the six sites and recover or preserve in place anything they find before grading the area. Both sides remain optimistic that they’ll conclude an agreement this year and that Forest Service officials in Washington will approve the request for a direct sale, which the Tonto Forest and regional offices have already approved.

Backers have also started drawing up a list of other, large privately owned parcels in town that could constitute a backup plan, should the Forest Service approval process continue to lag. The Payson Ranger District had hoped to use the money from the land sale to build new facilities of its own, including a ranger station and visitor’s center, quarters for firefighters, a heliport for firefighting helicopters and new storage areas. Congress took the rare step of saying that the Forest Service could use money from the land sale for new facilities, rather than putting the money from the land sale into the overall budget account.

In the meantime, backers have vowed to complete the deal, build a university and transform Rim Country’s economic prospects.

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The project will ultimately inject $150 million annually into the economy and transform the amenities, demographics and housing market of a rural town long dependent on tourism and second-home owners.

A deal with Arizona State University or one of three other interested institutions could result in the start of construction on the first, 1,000-student phase of the campus in 2014.

The towns of Payson and Star Valley partnered to set up the Rim Country Educational Alliance Separate Legal Entity, which will actually build the campus and own the facilities. The Alliance will then lease the facilities to the university and to other related businesses, using the lease payments and sales tax money generated to keep the cost of the university facilities as low as possible.

The plan calls for tuition 30 to 50 percent lower than the three existing public universities in the state, ensuring a ready supply of students.

The campus will offer key areas of study and undergraduate degrees, including topics like nursing, business, rural health care, forest health, alternative energy, education, fire science and other topics.

Moreover, the Alliance plans to build a creative, state-of-the-art campus that will turn the whole town into a high-speed, wireless Internet site.

The Alliance has already enlisted corporate partners, like Corning, which wants to install computer screen walls and counter tops that will connect the dorms, classrooms and offices to a central system. The design will let students interact with teachers all over the world in real time and access research materials and class sites from anywhere in the community.

The campus will blend into a hilly, forested 260-acre site on the boundary between Payson and Star Valley. The campus design firm — which decades ago laid out the University of California at Santa Cruz — will create a forested campus designed for walking and biking. The dorms will create a campus community, with half-disguised parking garages, shuttles and a layout that will minimize the impact of cars and leave as much natural open space as possible. The designers will match the layout to the purpose of the campus, to create a sense of community blended into nature.

Moreover, the campus will rely on solar and geothermal power, advanced energy-efficient design and materials to make the campus itself a sustainability showcase.

Backers have labored for four years to turn a visionary dream into a high-tech reality, which required creatively surmounting many problems — all of which have delayed a final deal for more than a year past the original timeline.

The university will provide a major economic boost to the community and likely boost housing prices as soon as the deal gets signed.

The addition of 6,000 students and several thousand new workers at the university and spin-off businesses will increase the housing demand throughout the region. Moreover, the campus will bring in many new high-skill jobs.

Perhaps most important of all, the university and related businesses will boost economic activity during the normally slow winter months, making the region’s economy more diverse and more resistant to the economic shifts that can have such an impact on a tourist-based economy.

Finally, the university will bring with it a host of new amenities — like a performing arts center, playing fields, a boost for the already diverse community of artists and a flush of regional and national publicity.

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